'This place is destroyed:' SWFL towing companies pull out dozens of submerged cars, trucks after Hurricane Ian

Eric Gonzalez, owner of Towing Unlimited, has been a part of the Cape Coral community for 17 years and had never seen storm destruction like Hurricane Ian.

Towing submerged car after submerged car out of the dark flood waters hurt him "to my core."

"I was crying after a lot of stuff that I saw … kind of hit home because we live here, this is my home, this place is destroyed," Gonzalez said. "It's going to take years to rebuild this place. It was painful seeing cars, infrastructure, buildings, roads we just rebuilt."

Within mere hours of Hurricane Ian's wrath coming to an end Thursday, Southwest Florida towing companies braved the tough elements to pull automobiles and vessels to safety.

Historic homes: Thomas Edison and Henry Ford winter homes survive Hurricane Ian

Photos of the aftermath: Damaged piers, homes and businesses: Hurricane Ian aftermath photos in Florida

How to help: How to help: Where to offer time, money, food and other supplies for Hurricane Ian victims

From recovering cars from the flood waters to pulling overturned semitrucks back up, towing companies combined saved thousands of vehicles from further damage.

Battling the storm

Chris Campbell, owner of Campbell's Towing and Recovery, said his company was on the road while the storm was still happening.

"I was actually probably on the road a the end of the storm while I was still headed for North Fort Myers to check on some elderly people," Campbell said.

He said over the past few days, his business have towed dozens of vehicles.

Jen Kitley, office manager for J & W Towing, said the drivers were also on the road quickly after Ian ended with four trucks, saving dozens of cars.

As soon as the go ahead was given, we kind of got back out there and started working again," Kitley said.

Hitting road blocks

Campbell said while he was initially on the road, it was very rough with debris and trees blocking his way.

"The visibility … it was kind of just bad because the wind was still so high but I mean, there were still signs flying through the air and whatnot when I first got back home," Campbell said.

To add to the problem, the first few hours post-storm, they lost two of his three trucks due to the flood waters, which created a huge setback for him.

For Gonzalez, his biggest hurdle was the way roads were closed off by law enforcement.

Normally getting from his office in Cape Coral to the HealthPark Hospital only takes 25 minutes. With the roadblocks, it took more than two hours for one trip. While he understands why the roads needed to be closed off for the public, he said normally tow truck drivers are let through to carry out their duties.

"With the way that the traffic was being handled, it took us another two hours just to get home, it was bad," Gonzalez said. "They're making us do long (detours) and I guess it's to control the flow of who's coming into Fort Myers and out of Fort Myers, but like I said, for emergency responders like us, they got to make it accessible."

As he navigated the frustrating routes, he describes what he saw post-storm as "a bomb dropping."

Prior to Ian, he has never seen a fully submerged car in water. Suddenly, almost every car on Thursday was packed with mud mixed with ocean water, saying it was so packed that you couldn't see inside.

"Almost every car we picked up that day was submerged off road, in a canal, in water.... it was bad," Gonzalez said.

Tow firms want first responder status

Gonzalez said he wishes that local officials would've prepared better for Ian, saying there should have been a better plan with getting people out and clearing the roads.

He adds that while he knows most residents' relationships with towing companies are hot and cold – you either love them or hate them, he wishes that they had the same respect other emergency responders do when they go out right after a storm.

"I love what I do … all the tow companies here, whether people see it or not, we serve this community, especially companies that are in Lee County," Gonzalez said. "We serve this company. We do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Every holiday, I've missed Thanksgivings. I've missed Christmases, New Year events with my family, just to be on call for the community."

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Hurricane-damaged cars pulled out of floods by SWFL towing companies