Brutal Night in Rockaways: 'Like the Sky Was on Fire'

Chief Leader - November 07, 2012

by SARAH DORSEY

The exhaustion in Battalion Chief Michael McGrath's voice was clear Nov. 4 despite the echoes reverberating through his satellite telephone.

It had been six days since Hurricane Sandy barreled through the Rockaways, and as the FDNY's commander in the area, he was still out in the field every day, rarely finding time to answer a reporter's questions.

His Only Reliable Option

With the power still out in the Rockaways and cell-phone towers scarcely functional, satellite service was his only reliable way to reach the outside world. "This is the best I'm gonna do," he said.

Firefighters and Emergency Medical Service personnel had been through a lot in the previous week, especially in low-lying areas of south Brooklyn and Staten Island. During the storm, 23 major fires broke out throughout the city, but the worst of them hit the Rockaways: at the height of the storm surge, three major fires were burning there at once. In total, 111 homes were destroyed by a Breezy Point fire, and at least 24 more were damaged. The other two blazes destroyed dozens more.

The night of the storm, Mr. McGrath and the staff of four firehouses had to retreat to the eastern edge of the peninsula, to a large firehouse in Far Rockaway known as The Big House that was on higher ground.

Sometime around 10 p.m.--the exact hour is now fuzzy in his mind--the calls started coming in. Fire in Breezy Point, on the far western tip of the peninsula. Several homes were ablaze. An hour later, a fire on Beach 114th St. Then, sometime around midnight, houses on Beach 130th St. were in flames.

But by the time the Breezy Point fire was reported, the water was already too high.

'Amazed We Didn't Get Stuck'

"We got to 30th St., we couldn't make it through," said Mr. McGrath. "Our rigs were going on and off. We would've lost our rigs, and that would've been no good to anybody."

They had to turn back. Other units had managed to get to Breezy Point, but Mr. McGrath and his firefighters were still a good four or five miles from the 114th St. blaze.

When the third fire was reported around midnight, the trucks set out for a third time.

"We tried it again and I don't know how we didn't get stuck," Mr. McGrath said. "We were going and going and I was just about to turn back and the water started to get lower."

The dispatcher said there'd been a report of people trapped in houses at Beach 130th St., so Chief McGrath had all units moved there.

"And it really was quite a scene," he said. "It was like a movie."

Firefighters were standing in water up to their chests; they were reaching into the dark, frigid waters to hook hoses to submerged hydrants. Then they carried them over their heads toward the blaze.

The salt water temporarily felled many vehicles that night: two Chief's cars, pumpers, ladder trucks, multiple apparatuses. Mr. McGrath said it was lucky that no FDNY members were killed.

"Everything was a close call," he said. "The conditions we were operating in and the amount of fire. You could step in an open sewer cover" or trip and be carried away by the current.

'Like Apocalypse Now'

Though he spoke of the night's events with the equanimity of a veteran firefighter, even a man with 34 years on the job reserves a little awe for such extreme situations.

"It was like the sky was on fire. Everything was on fire. You ever see Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen comes out of the water and there's fires burning all around? That's what it's like. There were embers flying everywhere and we were getting burned in the street.

"It's amazing," he said. "It's amazing that [the firefighters] were able to operate the way they did...Your equipment weighs 100 pounds dry. So imagine what it weighs [when wet]. And the firefighters operated six, seven hours straight without relief."

Mr. McGrath's own home in the Rockaways was damaged, though he dismissed the matter as unimportant. Having seen devastation over the years, he seemed to take it in stride.

"You see a lot," he said. "I've seen it before; I was there on 9/11 and I was sent to Hurricane Katrina. The city will bounce back. Rockaway will rise again."

Rescued 500 by Boat

Throughout the city, other commanders were leading similar operations in the flooded zones. The FDNY rescued about 500 people during the storm using swift-water boats. Close to 1,000 people who lived near the damaged crane that dangled next to a high-rise in midtown Manhattan had to be evacuated. EMS teams set a new record on Oct. 29, responding to 5,681 medical calls.

After the winds died down, the search-and-rescue missions began. Fire Department employees went door-to-door, searching nearly 30,000 damaged homes for survivors.

"We walked the Rockaways. We walked Staten Island. It took three days for that phase," FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer said. Then debris had to be removed and water had to be pumped from basements.

And still the fire calls kept coming in. When saltwater enters electrical panels, it can corrode equipment and spark fires. And with large swaths of the city without power, other hazards arise: candles are left unattended; generators are operated indoors; people try to use camp stoves to cook meals in their living rooms.

Numerous Units Displaced

Paramedics and EMTs faced their own difficulties. In addition to losing their homes and cars, several lost their work stations; Engine 264 in Far Rockaway is now temporary home to nine additional EMS units and several fire companies damaged in the flood.

The EMS call volume doubled after the storm, with workers fielding not only the usual medical calls, but requests from people who were simply isolated in their homes and were afraid, hungry and cold.

In such cases, Paramedics and EMTs take on temporary roles as social workers.

"If they call an ambulance, we go. Even if the person just says they're cold," said Division Chief Janice Olszewski, who commands EMS workers in some of the hardest-hit areas, Staten Island and South Brooklyn. The call might not be given a high priority, but staff have to check it out; the patient could have a more-severe emergency she can't articulate well.

"We refer them to social services, Child Protective Services, whatever's needed," Ms. Olszewski said.

Emergency medical personnel also took on the sad task of responding to reports of drowning during the storm; in many instances, they were too late to intervene. And they are still regularly evacuating elderly and disabled residents who are stuck without power on high floors of their apartment buildings.

'Homes Gone But They Came In'

Chief Olszewski praised her employees' ''extraordinary" dedication despite the chaos.

"Their homes were washed away. Their cars were washed away. And yet they still came to work. Their uniforms washed away. They had no personal protective gear. And yet they still came to work. It's amazing."

Behind the scenes, some EMS personnel have tried to lighten the burden on their less-fortunate colleagues. After a promotion ceremony Nov. 5, one Paramedic approached a Chief reporter to tell a story about a co-worker.

Lieut. Erin Doyle works in the Rockaways, but lives in Centereach, Long Island, deep in Suffolk County, she said. After her station was flooded, Ms. Doyle and a neighbor got busy cooking hot meals to feed the hundreds of FDNY staff now housed together at Engine 264.

"She hasn't seen her kids in a week," said Paramedic Jasmin Scott. "She drives to Long Island" from Far Rockaway after working overtime at the station.

"She'll cook 30 pounds of pasta, chicken, she'll even bake cookies." Then she drives it all back to the station so everyone has hot meals; otherwise, there wouldn't be enough to go around.

'Spending Her Own Money'

"She's spending her own money," Ms. Scott added.

Such generosity comes at perhaps a key time for the exhausted workers.

Division Chief Roger Ahee praised EMS workers' dedication but indicated that this is a tough time for all.

"They're sharing quarters with the FDNY still today," he said. "...Lots of people can't get to work because [they can't get] fuel."

His employees have worked around the clock and haven't had time to reflect on their personal losses, he said, but things are slowly calming down.

"Now reality is setting in," he said.