A box full of sandwiches arrived at the Cinnaminson Fire Department on Wednesday. Another was sent that night to the police department, too.
Included were a thank you card and a handwritten note from Gabby DiMaio, the youngest daughter of Robert DiMaio.
Thank you so so so so much for rescuing our little toy poodle Nala. We appreciated it so so much. Thanks for helping in the middle of the night.
The heartfelt message and sandwiches were delivered to Cinnaminson first responders who reunited Nala, a 15-year-old toy poodle, with the DiMaio family. Their six-hour, harrowing rescue down a sewer pipe happened in the wee hours of a Sunday morning.
“They were just awesome,” Robert DiMaio said. “It was a tremendous effort.”
The late summer night began without much drama on Saturday, a perfectly comfortable evening to spend outside with family and friends. The DiMaio family — both Robert’s crew in the Cinnaminson Crossing and his adult children nearby in other South Jersey towns — were taking advantage of the weather on one of the final weekends of summer.
“We were outside having a little family gathering and got distracted, a couple glasses of wine,” DiMaio said with a laugh.
He had asked Gabby to let Nala out at one point. But as the clock neared 11 p.m. and everyone was heading in for the night, DiMaio realized the dog, an elderly, seven-and-a-half-pound pooch who is both deaf and blind, was nowhere to be found.
The worried family scattered throughout their yard and neighborhood. DiMaio’s older daughter arrived from Maple Shade with her boyfriend, Eddie King.
“I know this dog; she usually goes left,” King said.
And so he started at the DiMaio house and headed left, whistling and keeping the flashlight on his phone dimmed a bit so as not to disturb neighbors as the clock neared midnight.
“Eddie the dog whisperer,” DiMaio joked. “He heard something coming from the sewer vent, where the rainwater drains, along the curb.”
Around the same time, a Cinnaminson Police patrol unit had been circling around the neighborhood, too.
“Because they’ve heard reports that there is some suspicious character in a blue shirt and red shorts,” DiMaio recalled.
The “suspicious character” was just Eddie the dog whisperer, so while one potential crisis was avoided, another was brought to the attention of police: Nala had fallen down the sewer drain.
“She’s really frail,” DiMaio said.
The police officers on the scene went right to work. They took off a manhole cover and began to scope out the situation. Officer Richard Deiss went below ground and flashed a light down the small pipe. About 100 feet away, a speck in the darkness, was Nala.
“She’s blind, so she was probably confused,” DiMaio said,
Deiss wanted to crawl through the tiny space to get the dog on his own, but his boss quickly shot down that idea. The officers decided to call the Cinnaminson Sewer Authority for backup. They arrived on scene around 2 a.m.
“They brought along a truck to try to flush her out from the other end,” DiMaio explained. “But the hose wasn’t gaining enough pressure; it was just trickling by Nala.”
But the responders kept working and brainstorming.
Meanwhile, Gabby was up all night crying. A neighbor from across the street kept bringing out drinks for the family and rescuers. Robert’s wife, Joanne, was praying to Robert’s first wife, Irene, who had passed away seven years ago. Nala had been her dog.
“We were upset,” Robert DiMaio said. “We thought she might not make it out of the sewer.”
Officer Deiss led the tireless effort from the police department. He spent nearly four hours in the storm drain and was soaked from the waist down. He had to switch out flashlights three or four times during the rescue attempt.
“I couldn’t sleep if we didn’t get this dog,” Deiss told the family.
By 4 a.m., the Cinnaminson Fire Department joined the effort. They brought along a tanker truck, and after one more failed attempt to flush Nala out, the trio of first responders came up with a new plan.
“Do you have any top soil?” someone asked DiMaio.
He hurried back to the house, opened the garage and fetched a bag of top soil, which the officers would use to provide back pressure for the hose. By around 5:30 a.m., the water had brought Nala to attention.
Down in the sewer pipe, the dog began gingerly walking toward Deiss just as the sun was rising above ground.
“Joanne began crying — tears of joy,” Robert DiMaio said. “I don’t know how she managed to fall down the drain and escape unscathed. She’s a strong-willed dog.”
DiMaio carefully wrapped Nala in a towel and, before everyone left the quiet suburban street and just as the rest of the neighborhood was waking up, they huddled together for a photo to celebrate the happy ending to a night few would soon forget.
“It just renewed my appreciation for the people who work for us, the emergency responders, the police officers, the firemen,” said DiMaio, who made a donation to each department’s fund this week. “Those guys, they’re just great people. They were really sincere. It was a humanitarian effort. They combined their expertise to accomplish one goal.
“I was impressed, I really was. I really, really appreciate it.”