After Blaze, Breezy Point Bands Together

The Wall Street Journal - October 31, 2012


Residents of the tightknit beach enclave of Breezy Point, Queens, sometimes known as the "Irish Riviera" for its overwhelming ethnic makeup, picked through the ashes of more than 100 homes destroyed by fire Monday night and contemplated the future of the once-placid getaway ravished by Sandy. Hundreds more homes suffered flood damage and dozens of houses were swept off their foundations, officials said.

At the same time, stories of neighbor helping neighbor abounded amid flooded streets, pancaked beach houses that lined a battered promenade and the entire cluster of dozens of homes known as "the wedge" leveled by the fire that was still smoldering Tuesday.

Firefighters whose own fire houses and families' homes were flooded arrived to the fire scene but were helpless for hours as waist-high choppy water blocked them from homes that were on fire and prevented them from linking to drowned hydrants.

"We saw the glow and couldn't do a thing," said Roxbury's deputy fire chief, Lou Satriano. "It was a domino effect. Houses just caught and caught and caught fire."

The blaze destroyed the home of Rep. Robert Turner, the Republican congressman who won a special election to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner last year, according to his deputy chief of staff, Eugene Patrone.

"I, along with many other Breezy Point residents, lost our homes last night and I am grateful that my family and I are safe after this destructive storm," Mr. Turner said in a statement.

The area has long been populated largely by Irish-American families, and long lines of New York firefighters and police officers make their homes there, emerging from the sand in the summer to snack on cheeseburgers and hot wings at the walk-up window at the beachside Sugar Bowl bar. Tuesday morning, the bar had been flattened.

Even though they were ordered to evacuate, many families elected to ride out the storm, thinking it wouldn't be any worse than last year's Irene. Peter Morgan, ex-chief of the fire department, who also was at the scene helping the Roxbury firefighters, figured 60% of the community had stayed behind.

Two Point Breeze firefighters survey the scene after the huge fire that destroyed more than 100 homes in Breezy Point in Queens.

It was a miscalculation. Tuesday, ambulances and fire trucks, sirens wailing, streamed onto the wind-whipped peninsula and residents waded through waist-high water to escape with what belongings they could or for those who fled to check on homes that were certainly left with standing water. One man dug through the twisted metal and charred remains of what once was his home, searching for his wife's wedding ring and the family safe with a firefighter's hook he'd commandeered from his New York Fire Department job.

Outside the Sugar Bowl, neighbors greeted neighbors with hugs and assessed one another's damage.

"Our whole deck is gone," said Katie Henderson.

"Yeah," said Finbar Devine, 26, who lives near her home. "I saw it float by."

The fire that swept through Breezy Point homes presented significant challenges to firefighters.

Roxbury's deputy fire chief said his team of about 10 volunteer firefighters was in the second floor of their station house at 42 State Road about 7:30 p.m. when someone noticed a glow out the window from the fires.

But the firefighters were trapped. Their phones and radios were down and they had fled upstairs an hour earlier when water gushed into the two-story firehouse. They couldn't even get to their trucks, which were standing in four feet of water.

Finally, around 11 p.m. the water subsided to about 2 feet, and the firefighters rushed downstairs to head to the fires at Breezy Point. The roads, too, were covered with standing water, so the mile-and-a-half trek was a slow one. They arrived to find no working fire hydrants, and firefighters from Point Breeze and the New York Fire Department on the scene but doing nothing because the water there was about 4 feet high, with waves and covered in white caps. Three homes at this time were fully engulfed in flames.

To complicate matters, the trucks on the scene were unable to get water to the fires because they couldn't pump the water that surrounded them into their hoses. The Roxbury department had the gear that could do this.

The firefighters started pumping the salty water around them into their hoses, and once the water receded a bit began to lug the hose through waist-high water three blocks to the fire scene.

By then six houses were glowing with fire, he said.

Only one firehose was trained on the fires from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., Mr. Satriano said