NEW YORK (AP) — Tragedy has too often visited one Queens community, but residents drew a line in the sand with Superstorm Sandy, rallying with a surfboard and kayaks at the storm's peak to rescue themselves as a fire engulfed 14 homes and flaming embers came at them like a torch.
"We heard screaming and crying in the dark," 55-year-old Thomas Buell recalled as he explained the midnight march through 4-foot-high flood waters in Belle Harbor by dozens of residents to reach a yacht club on higher ground. "It was a nightmare."
People here know disaster. On these few blocks of beach community that's home to many emergency responders, the Sept. 11 attacks hit hard, followed weeks later by a plane crash in the area that killed 265 people and now Superstorm Sandy, which took lives and touched off fires that destroyed about two dozen homes. But the rescues are the talk of the community, even as residents continue their cleanup, stacking destroyed belongings up to 20 feet high outside their ruined homes.
The heroism included Tommy Woods, who put his 82-year-old mother on a surfboard and ferried her several blocks to his brother's home through the chilly waters.
"He did a good job," Charlie Moran said, speaking quietly and reverently of his nephew, as he stood near the charred wood and concrete that was all that remained of the mostly two-story homes. A blackened firefighter statuette stood guard in front of one home's skeletal remains.
After rescuing his mother and 15-year-old son with the surfboard, Woods returned to the street where homes were burning to the ground to help a neighbor's mother get out by putting her in a kayak and walking her to safety, said Moran, a retired firefighter.
Several men in the burning homes went door-to-door to get everyone out.
Down the street, unaware of Woods' heroics, Buell and his neighbor Troy Bradwisch joined three other men wearing waist-high fisherman's waders to ferry people through the rolling waters to the Belle Harbor Yacht Club. Dozens of others, including an 86-year-old man, formed a human chain and trudged through the water, clutching neighbors to make sure no one was lost.
"There was a lot of current, but people were close together, holding on to each other," Buell said.
"Up the block it was like the apocalypse," he said, explaining why no one protested the move to the yacht club, a social club built high enough to remain dry even after the waters of the ocean met Jamaica Bay. He said the wind-driven storm and subsequent flood at high tide combined with a fire that produced grapefruit-size flaming flakes and clouds of smoke, distorting perceptions and making it impossible to know how near the fire was. Fire trucks couldn't immediately get through.
Those who were walked through the swirling waters in two kayaks, one 9 feet long and the other 15 1/2 feet, included Bradwisch's wife and children, a woman and her newborn, a pregnant woman and an elderly couple.
"The fire just kept spreading because of the wind," he said. "It was like being in front of a flame thrower. The most harrowing part of it was hearing the screams in the dark."
Bradwisch, a former Navy nurse who now works at a federal prison in Brooklyn, said everyone kept calm during the evacuation "because we had kids."
Once at the yacht club, 40 to 50 of them waited out the storm until morning by the light of lanterns, not knowing if they would have homes when they returned. Continued...