By Laura Collins Daily Mail
When it came to it there was only a handful of things he knew he had to save: all of them pictures.
Pictures of his girlfriend RoseEllen, pictures of her sons and pictures of their father, her late husband, New York firefighter Lieutenant Kevin Dowdell.
They were all that truly mattered as the threat of the flood and the flames got too close and Tom O’Day was forced to leave the family home in Breezy Point that he had fought to protect.
There was water already up to the first floor, four five feet high. I could see the flames just a few houses away, the wind was blowing east to west. It was coming. I said to RoseEllen I’m getting pictures of you and Patrick and his father and I got to get out of here.’It is more than a decade since RoseEllen Dowdell, 55, lost her husband and sons James and Patrick lost their father when the firefighter with Rescue 4 in Queens was killed, swallowed in the horror of 9/11 but forever a hero. His remains were never found.
Thirty of the firefighters killed that day came from Breezy Point – a place once known as a summer community but long since settled into its more permanent incarnation. Today it is known across the world for the images of devastation of almost biblical proportion wreaked by Hurricane Sandy.
Today Mrs Dowdell is facing the reality of rebuilding her life again – or at least a substantial part of it.
Perhaps it was the knowledge of that earlier loss that lead firefighter Mr O’Day, himself a close friend of Mrs Dowdell’s late husband, to stay as long as he did while the flood and fire raged. Perhaps it was simply because, after 35 years in the service, that is what he does.
Standing on the porch on which he must have stood a hundred times, Mr O’Day surveys an unfamiliar scene – the street once lined with clapboard houses is a slurry of debris. The once neatly tended and ornamented gardens are sump-holes pocked with a brick-a-brack of the contents of peoples’ homes and lives.
‘Of all the fires I’ve been to…’ he begins as he tries to marshall into words the enormity of what he has witnessed and what lies ahead. ‘Of all the fires, all the disasters.. take 35 years and add them altogether and they don’t compare to this.’
Mr O’Day chose to stay while many of the strong coastal community – predominantly Irish Catholic – evacuated as Hurricane Sandy hit.
He recalls: ‘The water just kept coming. It was four, five feet high, just a wall of water. It was mayhem and then the fire came. I called it in at about 8.45pm but the trucks couldn’t get in because of the water.
‘Once it started there was just no stopping it. The wind was blowing east to west and then maybe around midnight it switched to the north.’
He adds, ‘It’s what saved this house. But it wiped out a whole lot of others.’
There came a point, Mr O’Day explains, when he simply knew he had to get out. ‘I hate to feel like I’m defeated,’ his says. And after so many years and so many experiences it is clear that he is not a man easily knocked.
‘There was water already up to the first floor, four five feet high. I could see the flames just a few houses away, the wind was blowing east to west. It was coming. I said to RoseEllen I’m getting pictures of you and Patrick and his father and I got to get out of here.’
Today he and RoseEllen’s son, Patrick, an officer who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are stolidly carrying on. They strain at the heavy business of dragging a firehose out of the mud at the front of the family home, desperately trying to pump water from its flooded basement. But four days after the storm hit, Mr O’Day looks close to defeated – wrung out with exhaustion physical and emotional.
‘You know there’s a memorial to the 9/11 firefighters not far from here?’ he says. ‘It’s right at the front, right near the edge but it’s still standing.’
‘What you have to understand about this community is that we will work something out… we’ll work something out.’
Mr O’Day is clearly a man who inspires confidence, who is used to making things better, making people safe but the task in Breezy Point is nothing short of monumental.
After the violence of Monday and Tuesday’s storms there is an unsettling, uncertain quiet in its streets. Residents have been issued with passes to allow them back into the community which has, for the vast majority of them, been home for generations.
The phrase ‘tight knit community’ has been trotted out ad nauseum in the reams of coverage devoted to Breezy Point but walking through what is left of it it is clear just what that means and just how deep the bonds run.
Steven Greenberg owns a house just on the cusp of what he refers to as Breezy Point’s Ground Zero – the scorched out aftermath of more than 100 houses razed by fire.
He and his wife Lucia have returned to pick through what possessions are not too smoke damaged to save. And to talk to their friends and neighbours.
‘My family has been here four generations and Tommy’s has been here three. We grew up here, we had teenage jobs here, we never left here. We know three quarters of the people here. Everybody is affected. Everybody.’
Katie Smith, teacher
He explains: ‘This is a co-op. It’s not like other places. Fifty odd years ago there was a threat from a big developer who wanted to buy Breezy Point and the residents got together and each family paid $500 and raised $6million mortgage to keep this place theirs.’
That sense of ownership and investment is built into the fabric of the place.
Everybody here knows pretty much everybody – not simply in passing, but in depth. Families have been neighbours not for a handful of years but a handful of generations.
And now they find themselves hitching a lift on the back of trucks together to cross the flood water that still lines the road into the town.
They arrive bewildered by a landscape utterly changed, shifted, twisted and distorted.
Homes that once had porches are now raw-fronted and tilted. Sheds and their contents are simply lost. Cars too have disappeared but strangely determined little ornaments and pieces of garden furniture cling to their original site.
For school teacher Katie, 25, and Tommy Smith, 28, it is the second time they have ventured back to Breezy Point since the storm hit. The couple were married just two and a half months ago.
‘You won’t find a person here to say we will give up. We won’t. But we’ve got to wonder what we’re going to do.’
‘My family has been here four generations and Tommy’s has been here three,’ Katie says. ‘We grew up here, we had teenage jobs here, we never left here. We know three quarters of the people here. Everybody is affected. Everybody.
‘The house that my grandfather built was burnt to the ground, my parents house, all his family’s,’ she gestures to Tommy who seethes with stress and pain.
The couple had only recently returned from their honeymoon in St Lucia, they had just bought a house, they had just finished painting it, they had just started anticipating what it would be like as their first family home.
All along the way through town families carry bags of salvage or rubbish. Linens are hung over balconies to air. Everybody has a similar story to tell – a house demolished and belongings lost through fire or flood.
Hard hit: The Rockaway peninsula is a narrow strip of land that juts between the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay. The entire area, which has 130,000 residents, was in the city’s mandatory evacuation zone, but dozens decided to stay and weather the storm
Each house, each family’s experience is another link in the chain of personal disaster.
So what comes next? Many fear that should the area be shut down as a disaster zone it would make recover all the more protracted, all the less possible. Nobody here will say it is impossible because nobody here could – or would – countenance any notion that Breezy Point is destroyed. Though all accept that the way back will be a long, painful and expensive one.
According to Mr Greenberg: ‘You won’t find a person here to say we will give up. We won’t. But we’ve got to wonder what we’re going to do. We had an evacuation planned but it’s only now anyone’s asking, “So how are we going to get back?”‘