UNION BEACH, N.J. — In the days after Superstorm Sandy wrecked this gritty blue-collar enclave on the New Jersey shore, creating iconic scenes of devastation and loss, the artificial Christmas tree was just an inconspicuous part of tons of rubble, the detritus of people's lives in a town ripped open for all to see.
A local youth soccer coach drove past it for three days straight, on his way to volunteer by helping neighbors rip out the carpets, floors and walls of their flooded homes.
He plucked it from its waterlogged storage bag, set it up in a vacant field – and watched in amazement as grieving residents made the tree their own, adorning it with handmade ornaments, lights, and messages of hope, defiance and recovery.
A month later, Union Beach has rallied around the tree, a rare bit of encouragement in a depressing holiday season like no other.
"It's become the sign of our hope, that life goes on and you move forward. It's just amazing," said Gigi Liaguno-Dorr, whose destroyed restaurant, Jakeabob's Bay, was flashed across TV screens during Wednesday night's telecast of the Sandy benefit concert in New York.
This town of about 6,200 just across Raritan Bay from New York's Staten Island suffered major damage from the storm surge and resulting flooding; a house on the bay front that was literally cut in half by waves has become one of the defining images of the storm.
It is devastation that may chase many of the town's blue-collar residents away for good. Union Beach's median household income was $61,347; unlike wealthier Jersey shore oceanfront communities where many of the homes destroyed were summer getaways, most of the houses wrecked in Union Beach were people's only home.
"People say that Sandy brought that tree here for us," said Angel Barbosa, who works in a pizzeria just down the street.
County parks employee James Butler, the man who rescued the tree, says much of its appeal is that the community as a whole has taken ownership.
"It's an amazing thing to see it keep growing," he said.
Butler was very reluctant to be identified. He wants the focus to be on the community coming together, not him.
He came to feel the town's despair – and the reason to be hopeful – while helping an elderly widow haul out the waterlogged contents of her flooded home, including all her furniture and mementos of her husband.
"I took that same deep breath in that people whose homes are ruined take, when you realize that all the stuff that made that house a home is gone," he said. "She saw me do that, and she came over and gave me a hug. That was the spark I needed, the thought that things were going to be OK."
That night, in early November, he plucked the tree out of the debris in the curb.
"I took it out of the bag," he recalled. "It was like the rest of the town: It smelled bad and it was sopping wet."
He tried to set it upright, but it had no stand. He went to a store and bought a tree stand for a real tree, but because his tree was artificial, it didn't quite fit right, and to this day it lists a little to the side. He put up a handmade sign next to it, which read: "Dear Sandy: You can't wash away hope. You only watered it so more hope can grow. Signed, Union Beach."
Then he got out of the way as the town started adopting this forlorn storm survivor, a Charlie Brown tree if ever there was one.
A few ornaments appeared within a day or two. Others followed. Then still more. A neighbor ran a string of extension cords from his house to the tree so it could light up at night.
People started surrounding the tree with pieces of driftwood; kids left toy trucks at its base. The ornaments began getting personal, with hand-scrawled notes of support. One family wrote, "We believe! We have hope! We will recover!" on a flaming-red glass ornament. Another scrawled "We love Union Beach" on another. Ornaments from as far away as Tennessee and Florida now adorn the tree, mailed by relatives of Union Beach residents looking to show their support.
Dan Canales lives near the lot where the tree sits and checks on it daily. When it leans too far over, he straightens it up. He says he saw it lying in the street in the days after the storm but could not make out what it was. Now, he's delighted with the way Union Beach has made the tree its own.
"I think it's pretty awesome," he said. "A lot of people were hurt by this storm. You feel bad for everybody involved. But this is making people feel good a little bit."