2012-11-30 / Front Page

Wave Of Fire, Wall Of Water

In 1892, a large fire broke out in the geographic center of the peninsula, wiping out all of the wooden buildings. A local printer decided that the Brooklyn and Hempstead newspapers could not cover the story adequately and put out a broadsheet of his own with a large headline “Wave of Fire Sweeps Seaside.” The Wave was born as a weekly newspaper in 1893.

The paper published weekly from 1893 until Hurricane Sandy. Then, like the great majority of Rockaway businesses, its office on Rockaway Beach Boulevard was inundated by more than four feet of water. And, like the majority of Rockaway residents who lost at least one car and a basement, the paper lost everything from computers to files to most of its 118 years of bound volumes of The Wave.

“Everybody in the west end needs a car and a basement” was the punch line that was making the rounds early in the week, but most thought that it was more sad than funny. Even many of those who stayed for the storm left when the temperatures fell and they could no longer take the dark and freezing cold nights.

The lucky ones needed only a car and a basement.

Fourteen homes and the Harbor Light restaurant on Beach 130 Street were destroyed by fire and a few of the Beach 129 Street stores and restaurants were damaged because the fire department could not get into the area due to the high water. Numerous homes and stores on Rockaway Beach Boulevard between Beach 113 Street and Beach 116 Street were similarly destroyed by fire when, officials say, a fleeing pizza maker at Papa John’s left an oven burning when he left for higher ground. Homes and stores further east were saved by the new brick Social Security office in the middle of the block.

More than 110 Breezy Point homes burned to the ground with firefighters unable to get to the scene until it was too late, although they did manage to save surrounding homes.

The official death toll in Rockaway stood at seven. Popular postal worker Rick Gold, 67, died when he stepped on a downed electrical wire on his porch during the height of the storm.

David Gotthelf, 72, drowned in his Rockaway Park basement apartment as the water rose to the first floor.

Nancy Sorensen, 50, died of lacerations suffered in the storm.

William McKeon, 78, was found dead in the dark at the foot of the stairs in his Rockaway Beach apartment house.

George Stathis, 90, drowned in his Rockaway Park basement.

Harry Sullivan, 57, drowned in Belle Harbor.

Eden Toussaint, 58, drowned in his Far Rockaway building and was not found until several days after the flood waters subsided.

There are some who say the sheer magnitude of the disaster can be seen in the number of cars that were destroyed by the raging flood waters.

The drowned automobiles sit in rows along most of Rockaway’s east-west thoroughfares. Hundreds sit in parking lots throughout the peninsula. A thousand sit in the Riis Park parking lot along with 510 million pounds of what is left from the lives of Rockaway residents – the detritus of ruined lives and fortunes.

Sanitation officials say that its trucks have each delivered 50 tons a day since Sandy leaving the parking lot as one of the largest landfills in the nation. Those officials say that they will soon beginning open burning of the material.

And, while the American Airlines Flight 587 memorial at the south end of Beach 116 Street suffered little damage, the Tribute Park memorial to those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attack suffered significant damage.

The great majority of the stores on that busy shopping center were heavily damaged by the tidal surge from both the ocean and the bay as well.

From day 2, volunteers rushed to Rockaway, providing much needed food, clothing and supplies to beleaguered residents. Major centers were set up throughout the peninsula, including St. Francis de Sales Church, the Waldbaum’s Shopping Center, the Dayton Plaza Shopping Center, Redfern Houses and several other east end churches.

Celebrities from the entertainment and sports industries, as well as several national politicians flooded the peninsula, drawing lots of ink in the city’s daily papers. Former President Bill Clinton came to town with his non-profit group and President Barack Obama flew over in a helicopter.

Those who listened to a police or fire radio during the storm were treated to a drama that overshadowed what was being shown on television.

At 7:08 p.m. on Monday night, several feet of bay water reached the Cross Bay Bridge toll plaza, effectively closing off the peninsula from the rest of Queens. The island community of Broad Channel was inundated with more than nine feet of surging bay water, destroying homes along the bay and inundating cars.

At 7:30 p.m. a fire broke out at Papa John’s Pizza on Rockaway Beach Boulevard at Beach 113 Street setting wooden stores and homes along the street on fire. Firefighters from the swift boat unit made several rooftop rescues to pull the local residents to safety.

At 8:02 p.m. fire broke out at the Harbor Light restaurant on Newport Avenue and Beach 130 Street. With seven feet of water running strong in the area, firefighters could not reach the fire area and more than a dozen homes on the block were totally destroyed by the fast-moving fire. One teen took his surfboard and made numerous rescues of people fleeing their homes, removing them to a local apartment house, where residents opened their apartments to strangers and they weathered the storm together.

At 8:04 p.m., with several feet of water running down the street and overflowing driveway sandbags and cars, a Wave reporter tried to call 911 to report a blown transformer that started a small fire. The reporter got a recorded loop that announced that there was access available to the deaf. No operator ever picked up despite repeated calls.

At 8:22 p.m. the 100 Precinct was “holding” more than 50 water rescue jobs, meaning that there was nobody available to respond to the emergency calls.

At 8:25 p.m. the 100 Precinct reported that it had to evacuate the station house because of rising waters on the first floor. Officials asked for either personal water craft or amphibious trucks to evacuate the precinct building. At the same time, several police cars were stranded in the Waldbaum’s parking lot, the water up to the roof and the cops walking in five feet of water trying to get to higher ground.

At 8:27 reports began to come in of fires in Breezy Point. With firefighters unable to get to the area, where many of them live, more than 110 houses were destroyed. Firefighters did manage to contain the fire, saving many other homes in the gated community from destruction. Scattered throughout this edition of The Wave are photos from before, during and the aftermath of the storm. We hope they will serve as an archive of what happened in Rockaway during Superstorm Sandy.

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