Facing the storm: Saving homes and lives during Sandy

Capt. Sebastian Danese, along with numerous other firefighters evacuated residents when Superstorm Sandy hit and battled the largest residential fire in FDNY history

Editor's note: As part of our year-end coverage, we look back at some of 2012's biggest news stories and reconnect with some of those involved. In this article, we get a thrilling account from a firefighter battling structure fires during Superstorm Sandy.

By Sebastian Danese
Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department

I’m a captain at the Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department, and also a police officer in the NYPD. I’ve lived in Breezy Point for most of my life as a summer resident, and full time for the last seven years. We’re situated on a peninsula separating the Atlantic Ocean from Jamaica Bay, which also serves as the gateway to New York Harbor.

Our community has been here for more than a century and has seen all the beauty and danger Mother Nature can bring upon us. There’s been some rough weather in the past but, we’ve gotten through it.

The first time I heard of Hurricane Sandy was from my hurricane savvy parents who live in Florida about a week before the storm actually hit. I remembered back to the "monster" storm Irene the year prior and how the city had worked itself into a frenzy of preparations only to have it brush by us.

Perhaps because of Irene many residents had become complacent and over-confident in our ability to deal with Mother Nature. Many thought the storm would weaken or its track would take it far to the east, but as the storm came closer we realized it wasn’t going to miss, it wasn’t going to weaken, and this wasn’t going to be another Irene.

The morning of Oct. 29 brought the waters of the Atlantic Ocean to my front door. It was high tide, and the dunes had broken up most of the waves, but the water was pouring down my block in a steady stream.

It was the first high tide high tide, and the water had risen higher than we expected. I did one final check of my home, helped evacuate some neighbors who had suddenly become convinced of the dangers of Sandy, and then joined my friend John in Breezy Point Security to help other residents who were trying to escape the storm’s path.

At 2 pm we did one final sweep of the community together and it was at this time, during low tide, the waters from Sandy had already advanced deeper into the community than Irene at its worst. I bid John good luck, and joined my fellow firefighters at the Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department.

When I arrived, preparations were being made, but many were convinced the water wouldn’t rise high enough to the entire the firehouse or the engine deck. A turkey dinner was being prepared, the files in the office were still in their cabinets, and air mattresses were strewn around in anticipation of a long overnight event.

A few of us suggested opening the doors to the Breezy Point Club House just in case the unthinkable happened. The club house was directly behind us, made of cinderblock and heavy wood planking, and was several feet higher in elevation. Since my Honda Pilot had an inverter and built-in 750-watt generator, I parked it in front of the club house doors in the event we lost electrical power and the generators failed as they did before during Irene.

At 5 pm the firehouse was told that approximately 75% of the Rockaways had not heeded the mandatory evacuation order given by the mayor. We also learned that the FDNY was pulling out of our area at 6 pm and by 7 pm the Marine Parkway Bridge – our only link to the rest of the city, would be closed.

A hard decision had to be made, and all 25 volunteer firefighters decided to remain in Breezy Point and help the residents that had stayed behind to face the storm.

I want to emphasize this was not a choice made lightly or out of bravado. By this time we had first-hand accounts of waves already crashing into homes. The volunteer firefighters of Point Breeze (and other volunteer fire departments) stayed at their post knowing full well the grave risks they faced.

Soon after the bridge closed, the waters suddenly rose higher and faster than anyone expected, gushing into the firehouse and forcing the evacuation of the firefighters and the dozen or so civilians we had already provided refuge for.

With water already up to their chests, the volunteers and the residents made their way to the Breezy Point Club House which we had (fortuitously) prepared for such an event. Our reprieve was short lived, however, as the surging flood waters soon overwhelmed the Club House and we were forced to put the now more than three dozen civilians onto the stage to keep them dry while we stayed in the thigh-deep water below.

During this time the radio was crackling with reports of trapped residents in immediate danger, and of a boat crew going to their rescue. Having no boats of our own, we listened as six brave men of the Rockaway Point Volunteer Fire Department donned dry suits and took a few zodiac motor boats into the worst of hurricane Sandy to save their neighbors.

They had already rescued several people when we saw their lights approaching the club house. Dodging floating cars and debris, and losing a pair of boats in the attempt, they managed to reach the club house and shelter with us.

To the surprise of everyone, myself included, these brave men went back out into the storm to rescue more people and bring them to the club house until eventually the boats bogged down and they could do no more.

As we helped bring them in we saw the eerie glow of a large fire burning on the horizon to the southeast. Reports were coming in that the wedge – a large section of homes facing the Atlantic Ocean – was on fire.

With the water still rising and the Club House filling with thick choking smoke from the massive fire only a few hundred yards away, the volunteers and their charges were led in prayer by their Chief, Marty Ingram.

Eyes were rolled and comments were muttered as we all held hands and recited the prayers learned at church during better times, but despite the reservations anyone might have felt the effect was almost immediate.

The rising waters seemed to level off, and after another prayer, seemed to recede enough to evacuate the smoke filled Club House and return to the firehouse in the hopes of escaping the black cloud and baseball sized embers engulfing them.

One last prayer was said in the hopes the fire trucks would defy all engineering by starting despite being submerged in sea water, which luckily, they did. We quickly evacuated the 40 or so rescued civilians and turned their eyes toward the now massive fire to their south.

With FDNY stuck on the other side of Jamaica Bay due to the closed bridge, the Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department, the Rockaway Point Volunteer Fire Department, and the nearby Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department began to fight the largest residential fire in FDNY history with three fire trucks (two from PBVFD and one from Roxbury) and just a handful of volunteers.

Firefighters began battling the blaze in chest deep water, dodging deadly debris, sinkholes, and open cesspools. Water pressure was minimal due to the mains being cracked, the natural gas lines were still on and would continue to fuel the fire until 1:30 am because the shut off valves were under water, and two of the five fire trucks on the peninsula were destroyed by sea water. The fact that any of them were working at all was a miracle.

Roxbury was first on the scene approaching the fire from the north side and into the wind. They began drafting water from the flood and putting it onto the fire, trying to contain it. Point Breeze finished evacuating the club house and sent their newest truck – Engine 7, aka “Big Jack” – with the bulk of their firefighters to the same location. With hurricane winds of 50 to 80 mph blowing heat and smoke from over a hundred burning homes right at them, their position was difficult but necessary to prevent the spread of the fire.

I was on Point Breeze’s older truck – Ladder 8, aka “Sand Flea” – responding to a call for help from a disabled resident trapped in his home. On our way to that location we discovered an unreported burning home set ablaze by the embers from the large fire to our south, and was able to singlehandedly knockdown that house fire at 5 Bayway Walk.

Had that fire not been found it would have ultimately led unto another multiple home conflagration in the community.

From the fire at Bayway we proceeded west in an attempt to find a way through the debris and attack the fire from another angle. We were able to pick our way onto the promenade which is between the oceanfront homes and the Atlantic Ocean, which would put the wind and the heat at our backs.

However the oceanfront homes were ablaze and the Atlantic Ocean was crashing around us due to the hurricane, and there was a great risk in this strategy.

Had the wind changed or the hurricane hit us harder than we expected, we would have no escape and would have been lost. On the other hand, it gave us an opportunity to attack the fire at its very heart.

As a result, my partner and I working the nozzle for Ladder 8 were able to put water on the fire from nearly the very center even though the pressure was low. We were able to save dozens of homes this way, and contain the fire on our end until help could arrive.

Throughout the next twelve hours, we were able to rescue more trapped civilians and contain the fire until the FDNY could support us with what would ultimately be a six alarm call, bringing more than 300 firefighters to Breezy Point.

Although the embers would burn for a long time after, the major flames were extinguished leaving behind a swath a destruction that consumed 135 homes.

Yet despite our losses, and in stark contrast to the material damaged suffered by Breezy Point that night, there were no fatalities.

Thanks to the bravery of the men of the Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department and the other volunteer first responders in Breezy Point, no resident or volunteer was killed.

In a night full of miracles, it was that last one that meant the most.

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