PASSAIC, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- Flooding from the Passaic River brought on by the remnants of Hurricane Ida sent people scrambling to get out, but there's growing concern that some people didn't make it.
"I am hoping, perhaps even against all hope, that we find these individuals. But if not, it will be a retrieval operation," Passaic Mayor Hector Lora said.
Lora said the search was being ramped up for two missing college students. Witnesses told police they saw them get out of a red car and then get swept away into a swollen brook near Benson Court.
"We received witness accounts of two individuals, young adults, one male, one female, between the ages of 18 and 21, that came out of their vehicle at Benson and Main Avenue and were swept into the brook, under the culvert and may have potentially gone into the Passaic River," Lora said.
The mayor says he's hoping for a miracle.
"We have the vehicle. We have the cell phones of the individuals. We are utilizing everything that we can," Lora said.
The search with boats and divers for the young woman and man was complicated due to high tides and churning floodwaters that stayed angry long after the storm moved on.
"It splits out to two different culverts that eventually lead 10 feet from each other into the river. Makes it extremely difficult because a lot of the area is not accessible to us," Passaic Fire Chief Patrick Trentacost said.
In a separate incident in Passaic, a man from nearby Clifton was driving with his wife and son and died while behind the wheel In floodwaters.
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"We had a 70-year-old gentleman who, unfortunately, was stuck in his vehicle and was overtaken with water and drowned. But two of the family the members were rescued as a direct result of the courageous actions of firefighters who went in to over six feet of water and were able to rescue the wife and the son," Lora said.
Levi Fiddle lives near Passaic's low lying intersection of Passaic Avenue and Lackawanna. A floodwater line is on his garage door.
"It was about 13 feet. It was over the top, and it spread much further up the block," Fiddle said.
City workers in Passaic were clearing the storm drains and cleaning up muddy, debris-covered streets, but flooding persisted while pumps churned out water. Abandoned cars, now caked with mud, were slowly but surely disappearing from the roadways.
"The city has to clean up all this garbage, and hopefully he gets back to normal," said Passaic resident Matthew Krajewski.
Area cemeteries were swamped - another indication moving on from this is not going to be instant. Certainly not for those who lost loved ones.
"It's horrible. It's horrible," said Clifton resident Anne Scaduto.
"We wish no lives have been lost and we're hoping that it was only one, but it seems probable, it looks like it may be probable, that we'll find two bodies," Lora said.
Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency in New Jersey late Wednesday night.
"An extraordinary, sadly tragic, historic 24 hours in New Jersey. There's no other way to put it," Murphy told reporters in Mullica Hill, where a tornado was reported. "We've had fatalities. I won't get into the details or the numbers... Please keep those folks in your prayers."
As CBS2's Jessica Layton reported, the force of the flood was so severe, it knocked cars around like water toys in a bathtub in Clifton, flipping them on their sides and slamming them against fences and other vehicles.
Rescuers in scuba gear searched for victims who became trapped in their vehicles that floated away in several feet of flood water.
"We had firefighters swimming in the streets, as if they were in the river," Lora said. "At certain areas, it was over six feet, making it impossible to even reach vehicles and confirm whether or not there were individuals inside."
The storm greatly intensified after 6 p.m. Wednesday, causing the Passaic River to overflow its banks.
"I didn't know it was going to be this bad," said one man.
The man from Texas was visiting his mom and said, even in darkness, the devastation reminded him of Hurricane Harvey four years ago. He said his SUV can be replaced, but his heart was with the people he saw trying to escape a red car before it rested against a guardrail with its front end in the ground.
"I saw two people trying to get out of the car, that's all I could see," he said.
In Clifton, a Nissan Pathfinder was left abandoned in the middle of what looked like a raging river, with its hazard lights still blinking. Nearby, a father and son waited for a tow truck after their own close call.
Farther south in New Jersey, it appears a tornado touched down in Mullica Hill in Gloucester County, ripping some homes to shreds.
Stick with CBS2, CBSN New York and CBSNewYork.com for more on the storm and its aftermath. CBS2's Jessica Layton contributed to this report.
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