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Wind, flames, Our Fathers: The inside story of Breezy Point's terrible night

David Friedman / NBC News

Neighbors Bob Reilly, left, and Jim McGovern embrace among the burned-out remains of their Breezy Point, N.Y., homes on Wednesday.

BREEZY POINT, N.Y. —  As Hurricane Sandy turned the streets of this community into raging rivers on Monday evening, one company of volunteer firefighters ditched their rescue boats and sought refuge in the community center. Inside they found another bunch of volunteer firefighters, also stranded by rising water, who asked, "Are you here to rescue us?"

That was shortly before 70-mph winds blew embers the size of baseballs through the heart of this close-knit community on the Rockaway Peninsula in New York City’s Queens borough.

Interviews with residents and firefighters on Wednesday provided a more complete account of how the disaster unfolded in this beachside town when Sandy blasted ashore.

In a community where firefighters are demigods, where a memorial at the end of the point honors more than 30 residents who lost their lives at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, three companies of volunteer firefighters were overwhelmed by flooding and an inferno that destroyed more than 100 houses. Yet they fought the elements all night, saving many people and protecting houses on the perimeter of the burn zone, including the home of a 9/11 widow.

David Friedman / NBC News

The Rockaway Point Fire Department, one of three volunteer fire houses in Breezy Point, was unable to get its flooded trucks running during the storm. The men took to boats to pull people from the water.

When the water hit about 5:30 p.m., quickly disabling the fire engines and ambulances of the Rockaway Point Fire Department, its volunteers abandoned their firehouse. But when a call came in to rescue a wheelchair-bound elderly woman trapped in a flooded house, Lt. Jimmy Morton and four of his men put on their wetsuits and headed out in two motorboats — a 14-foot inflatable Zodiac and a 15-foot fiberglass Wheeler, steaming up the road into a hurricane.

Breezy Point residents search for the past, look to the future

The idyllic beachfront town of Breezy Point, N.Y., suffered through 9/11 and a devastating jet crash nearby. But this tight-knit community is determined to carry on. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.

The Breezy Point peninsula was inundated, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean merging with the waters of Jamaica Bay. Electrical transformers arced and sparked in the sky. Streets were disjointed as entire blocks of houses were shifted off their foundations. The winds blew 3-foot waves into the boats. Debris wrapped around the propellers. Finally they had to turn back, ditching their boats at the community center, crawling up a ladder and through a window to safety. They still don’t know what happened to the woman in the wheelchair.

Inside the community center, known as the Clubhouse, the Rockaway Point crew found 20 firefighters from the Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department, who had abandoned their own firehouse next door when it flooded. They were tending to about 20 people, mostly elderly and disabled. All were huddled on a stage where schoolchildren usually put on summer plays, with rising water lapping just a few inches below the lip of the stage.

David Friedman / NBC News

Chairs sit on the elevated stage of The Clubhouse, where Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Chief Marty Ingram and fellow firefighters huddled with rescued residents to escape rising floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy.

The Point Breeze fire chief, Marty Ingram, a retired Air Force helicopter pilot, had just finished leading the group in a prayer, an Our Father in the candlelight, when the Rockaway Point firefighters arrived.

A glow in the sky
"I was scared. We all were," Ingram said. "I told everyone, ‘We're beach people. Just imagine it's a summer day and you're standing in three feet of water at the beach, and relax.’" Afraid they would drown when water got higher than the windows, blocking escape, Ingram decided that if the water reached two inches on the stage, the men would take down the Christmas lights strung across the ceiling and use them as a rope line to try to cross the rapidly flowing Point Breeze Avenue to reach a two-story house. He finished a second Our Father, when everyone agreed the water might have receded a little bit.

David Friedman / NBC News

Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Chief Marty Ingram. "I told everyone, 'We're beach people. Just imagine it's a summer day and you're standing in three feet of water at the beach, and relax.'"

It was about 8:30, just before high tide, when they first noticed a glow in the sky.

Breezy Point: 'Whatever is not flooded is on fire'

Glenn Serafin had been one of the first to see the flames, near his home on Atlantic Avenue, on the ocean side of town in the knotted area of tightly grouped houses known as the Wedge, where the streets are as wide as sidewalks, the lots only 20 by 43 feet, the houses seven to 10 paces wide. He had been tending his pump, ignoring repeated phone calls from the community safety office insisting that everyone evacuate. He was expecting a few feet of water in his basement, as had happened in previous hurricanes, but he allows that "my thinking was flawed." He took a nap about 6:30 p.m., but was awakened by water in his basement, which had risen  neck high. Then the electrical outlets started popping from the salt water, and he heard the rush of water moving up the street.

Then, after 8 o'clock, out his back window, he spotted the fire, in one of the bungalows behind the larger beachfront house of Rep. Bob Turner (who got his job after Anthony Weiner lost his for sending nude photos and risque text messages). The fire leaped to the congressman's house, then to the house next door, where an older lady has kept a parrot for 50 years, the one that entertains children by repeating some choice words it learned from her dockworker husband. Then it jumped again and again, driven by the powerful southeast wind. The phones were out. The cell phones were out. Serafin used a garden hose and a margarita pitcher to throw water on his plastic storm shutters.

Read more Sandy coverage on NBCNews.com

Everyone knows everyone in the Wedge, often hanging out together at the Sugar Bowl beachfront bar. When a friend once asked Serafin, ‘Do you know Alice” he replied, “Oh, yes. She's my wife's brother's wife's brother's wife."

The people here own the houses, but not the land. They live in a gated co-op, some here full time, but most, like Serafin, staying mainly in the summer. A bungalow sells for $350,000, a larger house up to $800,000 or a million in the overheated New York real estate market, but these are mostly middle-class families, heavily Irish-Catholic, enjoying a unique community nicknamed the Irish Riviera. The cars pushed around by the waves carried window stickers from Holy Cross and Georgetown. At the end of each block, the water lapped over yard shrines to Mary and Joseph.

At the swamped Clubhouse, the firefighters could see a firestorm of embers driven by the winds, a volcano erupting toward them in a hurricane. The smoke drove more people out of their houses, even those who had been safe on second floors.

Devastated NY community built by firefighters burned beyond their reach

Across a flooded parking lot, Jack O'Meara and his wife, Aileen, were waving flashlights to alert the firefighters. The men from Rockaway got back into their boats, dodging concrete flower pots in the streets. These men — Michael Valentine, Brandon Reilly, Brian Doyle, Michael Kahlau and Jimmy Morton — went back and forth, pulling in family after family, including the O'Mearas, along with their grown children, John and Trish, and their two cats, Leon and Bright. The firefighters plucked more people abandoning Olive Walk ("Life is good," the sign says) and Roosevelt Walk ("walk softly").

Now the firefighters were worried about embers setting fire to the wooden roof of the Clubhouse, which was starting to fill with smoke. After a third Our Father, they returned to the Point Breeze firehouse and were finally able to get their fire engines started. They began using them to ferry the waterlogged band at the Clubhouse to a more-secure shelter at the flood-damaged St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church.

Breezy Point, N.Y., suffered devastating losses as a result of Sandy. NBC's Mara Schiavocampo reports.

The community's third company of volunteers, 10 men from the Volunteer Fire Department of Roxbury at the other end of the point, also saw the glow from the fire, but they, too, were in no position to respond. They were on the second floor of their firehouse, driven upstairs by the flood. Their fire trucks sat in four feet of water. All the radios were down, the phones dead. Only when the water went down a couple of feet could they drive to the fire.

A fire marshal whose home is in the Wedge, Kieran Burke, said it was about an hour, after he first saw the glow and smoke, before anyone began fighting the fire. Even then, until about 11 p.m., he said, there was only one hose directed at it.

Slideshow: Sandy slams East Coast

The assistant chief on scene from the New York Fire Department, Joseph Pfeifer, the same first chief to arrive at the World Trade Center on 9/11, said the department came as soon as it was called, though travel on the peninsula was slow in the high water. The timetable will be sorted out in the investigation, but Pfeifer said what's sure is that the city firefighters found an inferno, with at least 20 homes ablaze by the time they arrived. Telephone poles were on fire. Sinkholes opened up in the sandy soil, swallowing cars. Hydrants were hard to find under the seawater and had no water pressure, so the men "drafted" ocean water. Through six alarms, with nearly 300 firefighters working until mid-day Tuesday, they were able to do little more than hold the edges of the fire.

Holding the line at a widow's home
The volunteers from Point Breeze rode to the fire in the bucket of a payloader tractor, fighting alongside the Rockaway volunteers and the paid professionals until 5 in the morning. At one point they worked especially hard to save a large tan house facing the ocean. That's Sheila Scandole's house. Her husband, Robert, was a stock trader with Cantor Fitzgerald who died at the World Trade Center, and they both grew up in Breezy Point.

David Friedman / NBC News

Kieran Burke, a fire marshal, surveys the burned-out remains of his Breezy Point home on Wednesday. He was nearby at his mother's home, which survived but was flooded, when the fire started.

Slideshow: Surviving Sandy, twice

When the sun came up, the Sugar Bowl bar was gone. Kieran Burke's home was down, too, in the middle of a charred landscape the size of two football fields. Firefighters went house by house through the community, but so far found no one dead. The congressman's house was down, its white metal railing decorating a clump of debris at the edge of the burn zone. No one was quite sure what happened to the parrot next door. (Update: The parrot seems to have been rescued by an off-duty firefighter.)

But the house of Sheila Scandole, the 9/11 widow, remained, scarred but standing, staring out at the beach and the calming Atlantic Ocean beyond.

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