First responders from across the country have answered the call after a pair of their own lost everything in a fire last month.

Matt and Rich Sanders have long been involved in emergency services for the township. The community rallied to raise $18,111 after a fire destroyed their home Aug. 4, 2019.

A firefighter at Hamilton Township Station 18, Matt Sanders woke up at 2 a.m. Aug. 4 to the sound of a smoke alarm going off in his Hamilton home. Sanders opened his bedroom door and noticed smoke and heat filling the hallway. He yelled across the hallway to his sleeping father, Rich, a longtime EMT in the area.

Rich crawled to Sanders’s room and shut the door. Sanders, his girlfriend and Rich were trapped in the room. Knowing there was no other way out, Sanders opened the bedroom window, and all three people and Sanders’s dog escaped the burning home through the window.

No one was injured in the blaze, but the fire damaged the home extensively and destroyed nearly all the family’s possessions.

The next day, the Hamilton Career Firefighters Foundation established a GoFundMe campaign to help the Sanders. In the weeks since, hundreds of donations have poured in from around the country. By Aug. 21, $18,111 had been raised, exceeding the initial goal by more than $10,000. Nearly 250 people and organizations donated, with the largest donation coming from Lawrence EMS FMBA 396, a gift of $1,000.

On Aug. 9, Matt Sanders posted a message of gratitude on Facebook, which in part read, “The past few days have been tough and mentally draining. The amount of outreach and support has been more than I could have ever imagined…To everyone that has called, texted or stopped by to make sure we were OK and if we needed anything, I thank you. Thank you for everyone who donated time to clean out the basement, brought food, gave gift cards, donated money, gave us necessities. There’s not enough time to thank everyone personally, but I will do my best. This was one of the worst experiences of my life. To my brothers and sisters from the fire department, friends, family, co-workers and even complete strangers, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything you did and continue to do for me. I will never forget that.”

Lt. Tim Sharpley is one of the people who have pitched in. A career firefighter at Station 13 and trustee of the Hamilton Career Firefighters Foundation, Sharpley has known the Sanders family since he was a kid. Sharpley was not on-duty at the time of the fire, but he heard about the incident just hours after it happened.

Those who have jumped to help say it is merely a repayment of the years of dedication and community service Matt and Rich Sanders have given to Hamilton Township and the entire area. Rich has been a paramedic with Hamilton Township and then Robert Wood Johnson for decades, working to train many EMTs across the county.

“They’re wonderful people,” Sharpley said. “They’re always willing to lend a helping hand.”

Hamilton Township Fire District No. 9 Chief Mark Antozzeski served as incident commander during the fire. He said he received reports of heavy fire at the rear of a single-family home on Woolsey Street, but by the time he got on scene, much of the fire had been knocked down by crews that had responded first.

Firefighters responded in good time thanks to a Hamilton police officer who happened to be driving in the area, noticed the fire and called it in. Antozzeski said the outcome could have been much worse if not for the actions of the police officer, as well as the fast thinking and precautions taken by the Sanders family.

“Matt and his family did everything right,” Antozzeski said. “They had working smoke detectors, and they slept with the bedroom doors closed. The doors held the fire at bay until he heard the alarm in the hallway. Being prepared really showed its value in this case. Things can still happen, and everyone should be prepared.”

Antozzeski said utilities have been cut off to the house, and there is heat and smoke damage throughout the home. The structure is nowhere near in move-in condition.

Organizations like the Hamilton Career Firefighters Foundation have stepped in to ensure the family has support as it rebuilds.

“It’s a very long haul,” Sharpley said. “They’re going to need help throughout the year. They have to rebuild. They’ve lost everything.”

Donations can be given by dropping a check at any firehouse in Hamilton, or online through GoFundMe.