Centennial Celebration
Firefighter Residents in Rockaways Did What They Could Amid Hurricane Sandy's Devastation

NY Daily News - November 06, 2012

by Denis Hamill

Saved lives, but could only watch as neighborhood hit hard by storm of the century

When the waters started to rise the night Sandy screamed down Beach 130th St. in the Rockaways, many of the residents were in the street and on their porches.

FDNY Lt. Tommy Woods and three of his six firefighter neighbors heard the storied Harbor Light restaurant was ablaze.

"We ran there and tried to do what we could," Woods says. "This whole neighborhood turned out to help. But it was too far gone."

The owner, Bernie Heeren, clutched a framed photo of his son Charlie, who perished on 9/11, as he watched his restaurant burn on the same corner where Flight 587 crashed six weeks after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

"By the time me, Steve McDade, Donald Olsen and another fireman named Joe got back to our block, the water was rising up to our knees," Woods says. "I put on a surfing wetsuit. So did my son, Brendan, who's 14.

We went under the porch to get out the surfboards and the paddleboard. But we couldn't get the paddleboard out."

Inside the house at 427 Beach 130th, Tommy's mother, Mary Woods, 82, "was cool as a cucumber."
"We made her evacuate during Hurricane Irene, but she went kicking and screaming," says Woods. "Irene wasn't much, so this time she refused to go anywhere. But now the waters were rushing in like crazy and we had to get her out."

Tommy and Brendan strapped Mary onto a surfboard and the two of them waded into the storming waters of Rockaway in the lashing wind, as trees rocked at the roots and limbs flew and cars floated past them. They steered Mary five blocks against the roiling current to Tommy's brother Buddy's house on Beach 135th St.
"When they arrived in front of my house, I saw my mother lying on a surfboard in the pitch dark," says Buddy. "My heart sank. I thought she was dead. Then Tommy unstrapped her and we carried Mom into the house where the water was up to the porch."

"She was still cool as a cucumber," says Tommy.

Buddy smiled at the memory. And then his face crumpled in a jumble of emotions as tears coursed down his face. He wiped them away with the back of his construction glove after digging out his flood-damaged basement on Monday, a week after the hurricane.

"Sorry," he says. "This is the first time I talked about this, and retelling it makes me realize how bad it could have been. And how lucky we are. After my mom, my sister Eileen arrived, and her kids, and Tommy's wife,
Michelle, and their other son, Thomas Owen, he's 12, and all kinds of cousins, nieces, nephews until we had 29 people, four dogs and a bird in my house with no working bathrooms but everyone was safe. And alive."
But Tommy Woods wasn't finished.

As soon as they counted their blessings, another red fireball ignited the sky over Rockaway. "I thought it was still the Harbor Light," says Buddy.

Tommy, with 25 years of firefighting training and instincts for the worst, suspected differently. He grabbed Buddy's kayak and decided to paddle back to 130th St. His son, Brendan, an Archbishop Molloy High School student, insisted on joining his father.

When they arrived back on Beach 130th St., Tommy Woods, who'd run into a thousand burning homes over a quarter century as a firefighter, saw his own home swallowed in wind-slurping flames.

"I was too numb to have an emotional reaction," he said on Monday, with a week's reflection. "I saw that my neighbor Olsen's house was also on fire. He has a daughter, Mary Ellen, who suffers from MS. We wanted to get her out and to safety."

Tommy and Brendan and the other firefighters loaded the disabled girl into the kayak and as the waters rose and the winds spun fire up and down the street, Tommy and son Brendan paddled her the five blocks against the treacherous Sandy floodwaters to Buddy Woods' house.

A week later, Tommy Woods stood in his Uncle Charlie Moran's driveway down the block from his own cindered lot and spoke with hesitant modesty about life after Sandy.

Off-duty firefighters who work under Lt. Tommy Woods at Ladder 154/Engine 307 in Jackson Heights, Queens, showed up to help him with food, errands and emotional support. Neighbors gathered around to make sure he and his wife, Michelle, had everything they needed.

"Hey, we're still here," Michelle said, as effervescent as a bottle of good champagne. "It's been a hell of a year. I'm just growing my hair back after breast-cancer surgery, 16 weeks of heavy chemo at (Memorial) Sloan-Kettering and five weeks of radiation. I'm on light chemo now, meaning once every three weeks. And now a hurricane and a fire that took every single thing we owned. But, hey, we're here."

The Woods family is staying with Tommy's sister Eileen on Cranston Ave. and dealing with five different claims adjusters from Allstate insurance.

"My car burned," he said.

"Mine drowned," she said.

"We're homeless," he said.

They laughed, in a gritty it-could-be-worse New York way.

They cling to their humor, fortitude, family and life itself and a wonderful brotherhood of neighbors called the neighborhood of Rockaway.

On that foundation they will rebuild.

"We'll rebuild right here," Tommy says, waving a hand across the Sandy-scorched earth that until last week was called home. "Where else anywhere could you find neighbors as good as the ones we have? Look at this street. Everyone is out helping each other pump out basements, clean out debris, repair homes. On every block in Rockaway."

"The Sanitation Department has been absolutely fantastic," says Michelle, a sentiment that echoes through the Rockaways as tireless caravans of garbage trucks haul away untold tons of broken dreams to a makeshift landfill in Riis Park.

Tommy Woods looks up at the baby blue sky over Queens where airplanes are flying in and out of Kennedy again. "I have never seen so much generosity as what we have received," he says. "Food, clothes, warm drinks, offers of help."

His one complaint is the $1,800 in nonrefundable U.S. Airways tickets he had bought for a December ski trip.

The airline wasn't budging on the nonrefundable part, even though all the family's ski equipment -- and ID -- was incinerated in this national tragedy.

Let's see if this corporation has a person with a human heart.

On Beach 130th St. on Monday, no one was planning ski vacations. They were helping each other slog through the slow, resilient climb out of the abyss of Hurricane Sandy.