USA Today - November 26, 2012by Rick Hampson
BREEZY POINT, N.Y. -- Elizabeth Nies, 12, was outside her house, waiting for the storm everyone was talking about. That's when she saw it, rolling up Beach 208th Street, a half-mile from the ocean -- a wave as tall as she was.
She ran inside, where her family was eating dinner. "Dad," she cried on her way to the second floor, "water's coming down the road!" It was 6:30, two nights before Halloween.
So began the agony of Breezy Point, a village on a spit of beach in a remote corner of the nation's largest city.
Here, the classical elements of water, wind and fire would reduce the heart of the community to a fourth element: earth. The world would marvel at images of flames shooting from a flood -- an inferno amid a tempest named Sandy.
A fire chief said it was like "a wildfire, a forest fire out West." A resident a block from the fire line said it was "like watching Rome burn."
As Sandy approached, the mayor ordered an evacuation. The subsequent withdrawal of the city's fire and rescue service left a community founded and largely populated by firefighters and cops -- which lost more residents per capita on 9/11 than any other -- suddenly vulnerable to catastrophe.
But during Thanksgiving weekend, Breezy Point still had something for which to be grateful.
Although fire incinerated 111 houses and water ruined scores more, and although many otherwise law-abiding residents defied the evacuation order, no one was killed or seriously hurt.
The story of how a single house fire turned into one of New York's worst residential blazes in 150 years begins with bad weather and bad timing (full moon, rising tide) and ends with a good idea: use the water that caused the fire to fight it.
The Irish Riviera
Breezy Point is a dream of seaside living come to life. Its 2,800 homes range from humble '20s bungalows to proud, new, two-story houses bristling with decks. Sticking into the Atlantic at the west end of the Rockaway Peninsula, it's reachable from the city only by bridge and a single road. A guard shack blocks the entrance.
What locals call "The Wedge" is an older oceanside district whose houses and paths (there are no streets, just a peripheral parking lot) form a triangle. It's the physical expression of Breezy's tight social structure of extended families, many Irish, mostly Catholic. Some come summer after summer; others, including many retirees, are year-round residents.
The Wedge is also a perfect place for a fire. Frame houses stand cheek by jowl on small lots, with no streets to serve as firebreaks.
On Oct. 29, Breezy Point still was occupied by at least hundreds and possibly thousands of people, some who thought they could protect their property; some who had no place else to go; and some who believed Sandy was another false alarm, like last year's Hurricane Irene.
John Nies, Elizabeth's father, stayed because he was on the volunteer rescue squad and knew that many of his neighbors, particularly older ones, would not evacuate no matter what the mayor said. His wife and three daughters said, "If you're staying, we're staying."
Other holdouts ranged from U.S. Rep. Robert Turner, R-N.Y., and his wife at their beachfront home, to Michael O'Hanlon, 32, on the other side of The Wedge. "We built this place," he told ABC News. "We're not going anywhere."
The ocean meets the bay
Glenn Serafin, 62, stayed in his gray clapboard house that Monday because he didn't think the storm would be that bad. The wind wasn't that strong, the rain not that heavy. "It didn't feel like a hurricane," he says. He figured he'd stay until the lights went out.
He spent the afternoon moving stuff off the floor and making sure the sump pumps were working. A 6:15, he went upstairs for a nap.
Within a half-hour, Breezy Point was underwater.
The storm surge came from the Atlantic to the south and Jamaica Bay to the north, "swishing back and forth like water in a bathtub," Nies says.
The water lifted houses off foundations and pushed them into each other. It ripped doors off hinges, toppled 300-pound breakfronts, pushed freezers filled with beef across the room. It opened sinkholes and dislodged cesspools.
The water carried away Kathleen Henderson's deck and forced octogenarians Bill and Mary Norton up onto their bed, where they waited for hours to be rescued. On the bay side, it smashed in the windows of Jack Nacmias' basement, driving him upstairs and filling the 8-feet-high room in seconds, like a compartment on the Titanic.
The power failed, plunging homes into darkness and their occupants into panic.
Water rushed into the Rockaway Point Volunteer Fire Department, disabling both firetrucks and both ambulances.
A rescue team in motor boats responding to a distress call had to turn back; the debris was too thick, the current too strong. The team slipped into the Breezy Point Clubhouse, a community center, where refugees huddled on a stage as the water rose up the wall, saying The Lord's Prayer.
Serafin was awakened from his nap by the sound of rushing water, followed by the hissing sound of salt water flowing into electrical outlets. When he looked outside, his house was surrounded. To leave via the front door would mean wading chin-high through a fast-moving stream.
Then he looked out back. Smoke and flames seemed to be coming from a bungalow two houses away. Soon, it spread to Turner's house. "I said to myself, 'I've got a problem here,'" Serafin recalls. "I have water in front of me and fire behind me."
He waded outside, found that a neighbor's water spigot still had some pressure and started using a lemonade pitcher to throw water against the side of his house. When heat from the fires became too much, he retreated inside, dousing his plastic porch storm windows to stop them from imploding.
By now the fire was moving up Ocean Avenue, the walk next to Serafin's. "I kept saying, 'Please don't let the next house catch on fire,'" Serafin said.
But walls designed to contain fire for two hours were holding for 15 minutes. One by one, the houses on Ocean ignited: No. 165, the Strongs, who'd spent $400,000 on renovations; No. 160, the Dwyers, who'd lived there 23 years; No. 168, summer home to four generations of Tullys.
The blaze fanned out diagonally to the north and west, rousting people who'd climbed to second floors and decks to escape the flood. Some now jumped porch to porch to stay above the water and ahead of the fire.
The fire ignited telephone poles, melted siding, bent porch rails. Smoke obscured almost everything, including the sight of the Empire State Building.
The fire was not just out of control. It was unopposed.
The New York Fire Department had moved its trucks out of the evacuation zone to protect them against storm surge. When Nies called the city hotline to report smoke, the operator told him "no resources before midnight" -- the water was too high for trucks to get through.
Breezy Point was on its own.
The crowd of refugees in the clubhouse rose to around 90. Although the water had receded, now the room was filling with smoke. Cinders were drifting onto the roof. The fire was coming.
Some volunteer firemen decided to wade to the firehouse next door and try to start a firetruck that had been standing in water. When the ignition caught, recalls one of them, Deputy Chief Jimmy Morton, it was a wonderful sound: "It was a game changer. We had a way out."
Jammed with people, the truck plowed through flooded streets to the relative safety of a church.
Sometime after midnight, Glenn Serafin put down his lemonade pitcher and went out on his second-floor deck.
All the houses on Ocean had collapsed, affording him a full view of the fire field. It made him think of Nero's Rome. Standing alone in rain and howling wind, he beheld a world of fire, limitless and insatiable.
Fire on the water
Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer was the first chief at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and he now sorely wanted to be the first at Breezy Point, where his family had summered, where he'd fought his first fire as a teenage volunteer and where he now owned a home.
But before midnight, he stood helplessly and impatiently near the entrance to the bridge from Brooklyn, watching the red glow in the distance.
Water on the road into Breezy was still too high for his SUV, so he called for an engine to pick him up. It turned out to be No. 10 from Lower Manhattan, the first to respond on 9/11. As the truck plowed through the water, its engine began to smoke. "Don't stop!" Pfeifer ordered.
He arrived at a fire unlike any he'd ever seen. Dozens of houses were gone. Others were exploding into flames from radiant heat. Wind gusts up to 70 mph drove the blaze forward, showering firefighters with embers the size of baseballs and spraying their water back in their faces. Natural gas lines were melting, rupturing and exploding, sending flames 10 stories in the air.
Local volunteers had managed to get a single hose on the fire; it had been burning, essentially unchecked, for about five hours.
The storm surge had damaged water pipes, leaving hydrants with little or no pressure, and had created a waist-high moat around the fire. Worse, The Wedge's narrow, debris-clogged lanes were impassable.
Pfeifer's only hope was to contain the fire -- get ahead of it, outflank it.
Firefighters made the best of a bad situation by pumping up the corrosive, muck-filled saltwater at their feet and shooting it back at the fire. The technique, "drafting," is so unusual that most of them had never done it before.
The city firefighters were joined by Breezy Point's volunteers, including one whose house already was lost.
"He stood there on the corner where his house was, and he did his job," says Morton, the deputy chief. "He just pulled hose and kept his composure the best he could."
There was a parking lot on the fire's northern flank that offered a firebreak. Here, Pfeifer stationed 70-foot-high "tower ladders," atop which air-masked firefighters lashed to their posts manned high-pressure hoses.
But the ladder trucks couldn't maneuver in the tight grid of walks on the western side of The Wedge, where the fire was heading.
Then, luckily, the wind shifted to the north, allowing firefighters time to carry hoses to the western flank.
Around dawn, after almost 12 hours, six alarms and the efforts of 300 firefighters from firehouses across the city, Pfeifer -- who'd sustained a second-degree burn on his face from an ember -- declared the fire under control.
The cause of the fire would remain under investigation for weeks, but volunteer fire officers said it may have been started by a transformer that exploded near the bungalow on Ocean when the storm surge hit.
The Nies family squeezed into one bedroom in a relative's Brooklyn basement. They face weeks of what John calls "quality bonding," while they await the resumption of basic services to their house, which suffered relatively minor water damage.
Serafin spent the night of the fire in his own bed. The first fireman to reach his door the next day regarded him curiously: "You weren't here, were you?" He admits he was wrong about the storm: "The water was bad. The fire was bad. It was all bad."
Today, he says, he feels at peace, thankful for his escape from water and fire, thankful it all wasn't worse. In his hallway hangs a sign with a message that speaks of Breezy Point's determination to come back: "Life is Good at the Beach."