Long, Wet, Fiery Night for Queens Fire Co.

Chief Leader - November 07, 2012

by RICHARD STEIER

Fire Lieut. Jimmy O'Hara remembers the early part of last Monday night consisting of a series of calls for him and the five Firefighters under his command in Ladder Co. 158 to respond to reports of downed trees and power lines.

"We weren't in the house a lot," he said, referring to the firehouse on Springfield Blvd. just south of the Belt Parkway. "Another run, another run."

Not that the firehouse had much to offer besides shelter from Hurricane Sandy. "We had no power here since early afternoon," he recalled. Then, shortly after 11 p.m., "We got a call to go down to Rockaway for a pregnant woman trapped." He and members of his company would spend nearly eight hours first trying to reach the scene and then making what became a chain of responses to the fires that were threatening the peninsula, even as some of their colleagues at its west end strove valiantly to control the blazes that destroyed 111 homes in Breezy Point.

Normally, said the 19-year FDNY veteran--the last six of it spent at Ladder 158--the company would take a section of Brookville Blvd. known as Snake Road into Cedarhurst, L.I. as the quickest way to reach the Rockaways, but "that's usually the road that floods first." So instead, after finding numerous other routes inaccessible due to flooding, they took an alternate route traveling "almost into Lynbrook and down Broadway."

'Street Was Underwater'

But when they approached the location where assistance was needed, at Beach 32nd St. and Seagirt Ave. in Far Rockaway, it quickly became clear "we could not reach it; it was underwater," he said. So he and the five members of the company working with him that night--Bill Nerko, Jeffrey Warner, Justin Saurer, James Kelty and Brian Borawski

--headed over to The Big House--the quarters for three Rockaway fire companies that became the command center for the peninsula that evening because FDNY officials "knew this house wouldn't flood," since it was the one furthest from the surging ocean.

The commander there, Battalion Chief Mike McGrath, assigned them to a makeshift task force for the area and sent them out "into the waters to put out the fires," as Lieutenant O'Hara put it.

Their first call was to 455 Beach 128th St. between Cronston and Newport Aves in Belle Harbor. "There was a report of private dwellings burning," Mr. O'Hara said. But the street surrounding it, he discovered, "was all water." He described Mr. Nerko, who was driving the company's truck, as "the captain of the boat." Mr. Nerko added, "It was like a bleepin' submarine."

There was an added complication as they tried to reach the location through the flooded streets, Firefighter Warner said. "Our truck was displacing water in such a way that cars that were left there were moving around," now just metal propelled by the current.

"These buildings were burning," Mr. O'Hara said. "The wind was blowing. But the wind wasn't the problem. The problem was gettin' rigs down there. We're a tower ladder; we need an engine to pump us."

Suddenly, Lieutenant O'Hara said, "We were trying to prevent a gas station from burning. We were able to set up the tower ladder and protect the gas station."

In ordinary circumstances, they would have simply looked for stable ground to serve as the site from which to do this. But the water was so deep, he said, that "we guessed" and it turned out they were in a parking lot.

Firefighter Warner pointed to the boots they wear in such situations that are three feet tall. "As soon as you got off the rig they filled up," he said.

'Massive Fire for Blocks'

The gas station was the immediate concern, but it was hardly the end of the problems confronting them. "The fire was massive, for blocks," Mr. Nerko said. And so they worked slowly, methodically, to get it under control.

"You're trying to prevent the fire from extending any more than it has," Lieutenant O'Hara said. "We were there about two hours and then they replaced us with hand lines," hoses wielded on the ground by a special FDNY brushfire unit that operates in the Rockaways.

Working for that long would induce fatigue even in better weather conditions. The heavy winds and the rain and deep water they had to move through compounded the physical toll.

"Your legs are heavy, your bunker gear is soaking wet," Mr. O'Hara said. "Just moving around is hard."

Any thoughts of yielding to the weariness were quickly banished by the sight of residents outside their homes and in some cases blocks away from them. While most of the community remained indoors during the pre-dawn hours, clinging to what safety their homes provided even as they were being damaged, "Anyone we saw on the street were off-duty members who live in the area," the Lieutenant said. "You could tell they were exhausted, frustrated, 'cause nothing could be done. You feel bad: their neighborhood is being destroyed."

Chief McGrath sent them to another house fire, this one at Beach 131st St. and Beach Channel Drive. They were joined there by another ladder company, 176, and Engine Cos. 270 and 328.

"We put the second floor out from outside, and then we went in on the first floor," Mr. O'Hara said.

Outside the building, they witnessed something that would have seemed surreal if not for the condition of the streets. An off-duty Fire Captain, Michael Doda, "came over to us in a kayak," Chief O'Hara said. "He had waders on."

He said Mr. Doda told them, "I lost my car and my house is flooded, but at least my family is okay," a somber but relieved accounting that hundreds who lived in the area would be making over the next few days.

Ladder 158 was sent next to a fire at Newport Ave. and Beach 130th St., joined there by Engine Co. 33, which had been dispatched all the way from its lower Manhattan quarters. After an hour or so there, "they repositioned us again," Lieutenant O'Hara said, this time right in the middle of Beach 130th St.

'Wind Like a Blowtorch'

"Both sides of the block were smoldering," he said. "The fires probably started from wires coming down. And the wind is like a blowtorch. Once it starts, it just keeps spreading them. I've never seen it" like that, referring to a steady stream of fires in such a concentrated area.

Asked whether it was frustrating having each successful attempt to extinguish a blaze quickly followed by new fires to put out, Mr. O'Hara said, "You weren't even thinking. You just keep going."

That literally was becoming more difficult, Firefighter Nerko said, because their rig was running short on fuel, until a delivery was finally made about 4 a.m.

There was also an unsettling sense of déjà vu about the location. Firefighter Warner said "it was the same spot" where American Airlines Flight 587 bound for the Dominican Republic had crashed 11 years earlier.

"We were there 'til around 6:30" Tuesday morning, Lieutenant O'Hara said. "The dispatcher informed us that the tide was coming back in. They wanted to get all the rigs outta there. They didn't want to lose any rigs."

He was speaking last Saturday morning, sitting in the firehouse kitchen with other members of the company, explaining why the water from the ocean was such a concern for people who normally regard the substance as their greatest ally.

'Salt Erodes the Electronics'

"Salt water was everywhere in the cabinets of the rig," Firefighter Warner said. "Salt starts eroding the electronics in the vehicle."

The department's understandable concern about damage to its trucks offered a needed respite to members of Ladder 158, some of whom, like Lieutenant O'Hara, had been working since 9 a.m. the previous morning.

"We were all exhausted," he said, noting wryly that it had actually been his day off but he had traded a "mutual" with Lieut. Ed Martin to take his shift. "We wanted to get back to our firehouse and out of our wet clothing."

They weren't home free just yet, he added: "We got a flat tire a few blocks from here. You could hear the hissing of the air going out of the tire. We were able to get back before it went completely flat."

They completed their shifts by getting out of their wet gear and showering, then getting the water off the truck.

No sooner had he finished recounting this than bells sounded and Mr. O'Hara remarked, "We've got a run," and he and other company members moved quickly toward their rig.

'Could Be a Structural Fire'

"That could be a structural fire," said Firefighter Saurer, who was in the firehouse Saturday morning in the event that any relief was needed. "It never ends."

He had gone home last Tuesday, he said, and "I slept 14 hours. You're just exhausted. But a lot of the houses aren't even there anymore."

A radio transmission came in and he said, "They just went on a run for a building fire and there's a possible baby trapped."

Another fire truck entered the company's quarters, carrying members of Engine Co. 285, who were temporarily relocating there. One firefighter asked another, "How you make out?" prompting the reply, "Just losing power. I can't really complain, considering."

The conversation took on the rhythm of a firehouse in more-normal times, except that some of the pointed remarks were unique to what had occurred five days earlier and its aftermath. They spoke of Mayor Bloomberg's late decision a day earlier to cancel the New York City Marathon, with one firefighter exclaiming, "The killer is, they have these huge generators in [Central] Park. People in Staten Island, they got nothing."

Aid Not For Rebuilding

One mentioned that some housing projects in the Rockaways were supposed to be flooded up to the second floor; another that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was offering residents of Breezy Point financial assistance but, because of the perils inherent in the location, not to rebuild the houses that had been destroyed in the fire. One firefighter said it amazed him, given the gas shortage, that people were still speeding on the highways.

A bit more than an hour after they left, the members of Ladder 158 were back in the firehouse. The baby had been taken out of the burning building at 255th St. and 149th Rd. in Rosedale before they arrived, Lieutenant O'Hara said. The only casualty was a firefighter from another company who had felt his knee buckle while on the building's stairs. "They took him to North Shore [Hospital]; he should be fine," he said.

They were asked about the damage done by the fires, and Mr. Nerko said that more than 300 city firefighters who live in the Rockaways had sustained either fire or water damage to their homes.

Firefighter Kelty, speaking of a neighborhood just north of the Cross Bay Bridge that connects mainland Queens to the Rockaways, said, "We know two guys in Broad Channel who lost their homes."

'More Fire Than After Crash'

Mr. Nerko, reflecting on the American Airlines tragedy 11 years earlier in which 265 people lost their lives, said, "I was down there with EMS for the plane crash, and there was more fire [last Monday] night."

They were asked whether the enormity of their task last week and the obstacles they had encountered while working mightily to minimize the danger affected the way they look at their jobs.

"You just deal with it," Lieutenant O'Hara replied.

"You know it can happen," Firefighter Kelty said of the craziness of that long night's journey. "It's rare, but you know it can happen."