SANDY One Year Later ...
On February 27th, 2013, they stood in the chambers of the New York City Council in their sharp dress uniforms. The men and women of the Rockaway Point, Roxbury, Point Breeze, Broad Channel and West Hamilton Beach volunteer fire departments were there to be honored by the Council, as represented by Councilman Eric Ulrich and Speaker Christine Quinn, for their exemplary work during and after Hurricane Sandy. These citizen firefighters’ and rescue workers’ actions all through the storm had spoken volumes.
By day they are MTA workers, school janitors, bus drivers, IT professionals, mechanics, lawyers, cooks, judges, retired military personnel and even EMT’s and firefighters. In Breezy Point, the oldest member just turned 90.
As Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dan McIntyre put it, “you really have to be dedicated to helping people. That goes for any volunteer department.” In most cases the fire companies they serve in started as bucket brigades, founded a century or more ago when citizens banded together to protect lives and property in their far flung communities of Queens.
Sandy was an event that all who were interviewed collectively agreed was like nothing they had ever seen before. “I moved down here when I was nine,” said Chief McIntyre, “so I’ve been here about 43 years.”
“I’ve been through many storms down here. I have never seen a surge come up that quick.”
“The day before the storm,” noted Breezy Point’s Fire Chief John Fahy, “we knew something was coming. We didn’t expect it to be as bad as it turned out to be.”
Among other preparations, they put sandbags around their fire house and “put our equipment up high in the hopes of avoiding damage” Fahy said.
Over in Broad Channel, the Vollies, as they are affectionately known, actually had started preparing for the storm three days before.”
They canvassed ex-members and retired members, reaching out to have 25-30 additional people in preparation for that night in addition to the 19 regular volunteers on duty.
“We put everything we could upstairs in the firehouse. Then we went to secure fuel, food and set up our radio center at the American Legion.”
“After the mayor’s order to evacuate, we were out announcing it up and down the streets. We helped secure oil tanks and anything else that might break loose. We went around making sure anyone with special needs and seniors got out okay.”
“At 3 p.m. we shut the firehouse down and moved to (higher ground at) the Legion.”
But once storm hit, things began to change very quickly.
“We actually saw the Bay coming up the street. The power went out and the backup generator did not kick in,” Fahy said.
When the late tidal surge poured onto the peninsula, volunteers soon found themselves engulfed in its raging water.
At the Rockaway Point VFD, firefighter Mike Kahlau said, suddenly “it’s 5 /12 to 6 feet of water inside the firehouse. You couldn’t see the hood of the truck anymore.”
“Once the boats started floating off the trailers, we knew it wasn’t going to be good.”
“We started ripping things off the walls; anything we deemed important. We ripped it off the walls and took it upstairs. Anything we could carry,” recalled his wife, volunteer EMT Kate Kahlau.
Within ten minutes, she recalled, the water was already waist deep.
Mike Kahlau recalls, “We had two boats and I broke out my boat.”
With winds whipping up to 70 mph and churning waves rolling between houses in the narrow streets, “Five of us piled into boats and we went out rescuing people. We were pulling people from cars, houses.”
At the height of the storm in Broad Channel, Chief McIntyre reports they had 35-40 calls for assistance. “People that waited too long to evacuate. Last minute calls for help. Basically we had 12 people, in the water, walking, going from house to house.”
“We also made numerous calls to OEM (NYC Office of Emergency Management), the FDNY and everywhere else to get Con Ed to cut the power. It was only by the grace of God that we didn’t have any fires.”
One casualty was BCVFD Engine 209. Engulfed and submerged at the height of the tide, it caught fire.
On the bright morning after the yellow-green fire engine’s burnt out and dripping hulk on Cross Bay Boulevard stood out amid the general destruction.
As the cold water rose faster and higher the night of October 29th, volunteers set to and did whatever they could wherever they were.
Rockaway Point VFD Chief Matthew Piccione recalls, “I did evacuate several people in a single family house. I had to kick in the door. I said, ‘Come on. You’ve got 30 seconds to make this decision.”
Fortunately they did decide to leave and were brought to safety.”
Piccione recalls how he came to the aid of a woman walking along the road holding a baby above the waves.
“When I rolled down the window of my Suburban, the water came,” he says.
He also remembers saying to himself as he drove along, “Was that’s somebody that just swam by me?”
Sure enough, there was a woman attempting to swim to safety through the storm. “I grabbed her by the hair and pulled her through the window.”
Around 6:30 p.m. water start to pour into the Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department’s firehouse and rose rapidly. Chief Richard Colleran, who has served the RVFD for more than four decades, and twelve volunteers were forced to evacuate to a smaller room upstairs. Looking out to the West, they witnessed the beginnings of something that would add an unprecedented layer of damage to Hurricane Sandy.
Breezy Point was burning.
“We didn’t know how high the fire was going to get or when it was going to stop,” Colleran would later tell the Queens Courier.
Pinned down by the hurricane’s pounding waters and shearing winds, BPVFD Chief Fahy recalled, “You could see this orange glow, just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Embers the size of softball were dropping everywhere.”
“We eventually got everyone out onto the trucks,” he said. “Roxbury was the first on the scene.”
At around 10 p.m. flood waters began to drop with the outgoing tide.
Although the vehicles were soaked, miraculously Roxbury was able to get their trucks started and the volunteers headed towards the blaze. As it turned out they were the first to put water on the inferno.
They were soon joined by the Rockaway Point Volunteers. Their trucks were out of commission, but they were able to reach the scene, Piccione explained, because a gentleman named “Dennis Maloney took guys and equipment back and forth with his pay loader.”
As the Courier describes conditions at the midst of the fire, “Propane barbecue tanks and transformers burst like cherry bombs around the firefighters who sprayed the climbing flames.”
Colleran recounted how “the fire was around us and all over the place. I don’t know how many houses were gone at the time.” By morning more than 120 homes were gone.
Amongst the Rockaway/Broad Channel volunteer fire departments, some lost most if not all of their equipment.
In Rockaway Point alone, two ambulances, two engines and a chief vehicle were all destroyed.
Personnel faced loses of their own. “Our whole basement was destroyed. First floor destroyed. We were lucky,” said Kate Kahlau.
“My house was destroyed,” said McIntyre in Broad Channel, “I had no place to go.”
Chief Fahy in Breezy Point said “Several members had their homes destroyed.” Some are still facing both home and economic loses nearly twelve months later.
Nevertheless, by the next morning volunteers went from firefighting and rescue right into relief and recovery.
“This building,” Chief McIntyre said about the over 100 year old Broad Channel firehouse “has been underwater many times. It doesn’t give a crap about being underwater.”
“People just started dropping things off. ‘Here’s clothes, here’s food, water’.
“Sometimes people would show up with barbecues and start cooking.”
The open front of the firehouse began to look like an outdoor market for all in need.
“We had,” McIntyre remembered, “an influx of volunteers from all over the country.”
“It gives you great faith in human kind.”
Then organizations, like “our friends in the fire service called us up and said, ‘What do you need?’”
“Three days later a tractor trailed showed up with a fire engine from Minnesota.”
The Roxbury volunteers ran a makeshift mini-mart, stocking shelves with baby formula, diapers, canned food, chips, bottled water and more to help those in the community who were left without basic supplies.
At a point there were fifteen families living in the firehouse, quartered in the same second floor where the firefighters observed the flames on the night of the storm. Every day Chief Colleran’s wife Mary and others would put up hot food and coffee for the displaced and anyone else who needed.
Their own home suffered a cracked foundation as six feet of water poured into it; they lost their deck and all their furniture.
They, too, were not able to return home. At Rockaway Point, “we actually couldn’t work out of our own firehouse, “Chief Piccione said. “We had people that came from Chicago, Virginia, California, Hawaii. We ran out of room for them.”
Like other volunteer units, they also looked after triage, medical needs and storm injuries. “We treated 50-60 people within a month,” Piccione said.
“We also started picking up debris in the streets. It didn’t matter whose house or whose streets.”
“People were working on their homes and also helping the community.” As emergency services centers began to be consolidated, volunteer fire departments shifted their efforts to those areas and beyond.
“For week after week after the storm we unloaded truck after truck, said Piccione. “Including my kids, we were serving lunch, serving breakfast, working on food pantries.”
He and others “worked a lot with the Amish, help- ing people build houses. I learned so much from those people.”
The VFD’s also hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations and organized toy drives, as so many children had lost their beloved playthings to the storm.
Volunteer fire departments found themselves serving their post-Sandy communities in new ways.
On December 22nd, Roxbury’s fire engine served as the wedding limousine for EMT Tracy Rutter, bringing her and her firefighter father to St. Thomas Moore Roman Catholic Church in Breezy Point, where she wed fellow first responder, NYC Firefighter Rich Whalen.
According to the Daily News, the engine was one of the first to reach the Breezy Point fires. Despite losing their home to Hurricane Sandy, Whalen and Rutter decided not to postpone the big day.
It was the first wedding there since the storm.
Each of the local fire departments expressed deep appreciation of the work of their fellow volunteer companies and the FDNY. Today, each of the departments is still rebuilding and replacing engines, often through donations of equipment from all over the country. Where they have been able to purchase new, they donated spare equipment to others, like the Long Island fire companies hit by the storm. After years of red tape delays, the BCVFD is closer than ever to building a brand new firehouse.
Ironically had the project been approved and built as planned earlier, it would have been above Sandy’s surge level and provided heat, hot water, shower and cooking facilities for the community, stable communications and power.
In his community, Fahey says of Breezy Point’s rebuilding, “We strive every day for that finish line.”
“If we have to deal with something like this again, we’ll be ready.”
Says Piccione one year after the storm, “I don’t want Rockaway to be forgotten. We have a have a long battle ahead of us.”
True to their nature, in the midst of that long recovery, the men and women of the Rockaway Point, Roxbury, Point Breeze and Broad Channel volunteer fire departments, see it as their duty to reach further out to be there for others. Reflecting the initiatives of each of the fire companies, Chief Piccione recalls, “We were a drop off point (after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.) We went up to Newtown, Connecticut.”
“We sent two trucks down to Oklahoma” (in the wake of devastating tornados there).
Recently volunteers, knowing first-hand what they themselves needed after Hurricane Sandy, organized food and supply drives for victims of Colorado’s torrential floods.
“We try,” Piccione said, “to pay it forward. Always.”