Sandy, fires leave many Queens residents homeless

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:02 PM

Bradley Keoun

NEW YORK - Matt Long poked around the sooty ground in front of the charred remains of his home of 15 years.

Nothing inside survived the post-Hurricane Sandy fire that ravaged the beachfront hamlet of Breezy Point, N.Y. Long and his wife, Mary, were trying to salvage the only keepsakes they could: octagonal stones, each six inches across. One bore the handprint of 10-year-old Grace, the other was made by 8- year-old Emily.

The house on Gotham Walk and 110 others were destroyed by fire on that stretch of peninsula on the southwestern tip of New York City’s Queens borough, about 10 miles by air from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

"It’s awful," said Long, 46, a former firefighter who was nearly killed when a bus making an illegal turn slammed into his bicycle in 2005. "There’s a lot of history in this place, and now it’s all gone."

Mary, 38, stood on what used to be the family’s front stoop and wiped away tears. The neighborhood nicknamed the "Irish Riviera" was unrecognizable.

In addition to the structures claimed by fire, many more of Breezy Point’s 2,834 houses were waterlogged, missing walls or listing on sunken foundations.

John Whelan, 49, stood at the edge of what had been a densely-built block of homes. A few brick chimneys survived and at least three statuettes of the Virgin Mary.

"These things made it," Whelan said, pointing to one of the religious statues. "This is a very Catholic community."

There was no electricity or running water, and the neighborhood’s walkways were covered with sand deposits left behind when the water retreated. Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano could name just one "bright spot." No one was reported missing.

Investigators yesterday were still trying to determine the cause, Cassano said.

The fire started in one corner of the neighborhood. The National Weather Service recorded gusts nearby of as much as 79 miles per hour, so winds had more than enough strength to fan the flames and help them travel.

Fire was "jumping from house to house," said Whelan, who fled his own home and then watched from the safety of a neighbor’s window as the fire spread.

As the flames engulfed the neighborhood, the pumper trucks had to wait, delayed by a storm surge too deep to navigate, said residents who witnessed the conflagration and firefighters on the scene.

The Breezy Point home of Republican Rep. Bob Turner was among those that flooded and then burned, according to his chief of staff, Michael Giuliani.

Many in the neighborhood are firefighters, police officers and teachers. The neighborhood had been hard hit on 9/11, losing 37 residents. Last year, Hurricane Irene came through, and last month, a tornado hit.

Homes occupied year-round outnumber those of seasonal residents, according to Dennis Dier, director of security for Breezy Point.

Dier estimated that residents in 85 percent of the dwellings had obeyed the evacuation order and weren’t around for the flooding or the fire that followed.

Those who stayed included Bill and Mary Norton, both 88, who were ferried over the flooded road yesterday morning in a small boat.

As his rescuers eased him into a plastic chair next to his wife outside of Breezy Point’s security office, Bill Norton groped for the words to describe the storm, and came up with only two: "Jesus, horrible."

"This used to be heaven, and now it’s turned into a nightmare," said Debra Spyliopulos, surveying the expanse of water that had been a beach.

"We had volleyball all summer long here," said Spyliopulos, 56, an airline flight attendant.

Nearby, the Sugar Bowl, a local hangout where her husband, Marc, 62, tended bar part-time, was a disarray of plywood and broken concrete, its roof pushed into the house next door.

The Sugar Bowl was just the beginning of the family’s losses. She said her daughter’s house in Breezy Point was destroyed by fire, and her 25-year-old son Andrew watched from a neighbor’s, having stayed too long to evacuate.

By the time the fire started, the water was too high for Andrew to get out, she said. "It was up to his neck, and he’s 5-foot-10-inches.

Spyliopulos, who weathered the storm 20 miles away in Maspeth, returned yesterday to find her house had been flooded with three to four feet of water. "It’s all mud," she said. "Even when I pull out the drawers in my kitchen, they’re full of water."

Long, the retired firefighter, got his family - Mary, Grace, Emily and 4-month-old Charlie - to his brother’s home the day before the storm hit. "We sought higher ground," he said.

Alerted by a police scanner, the brothers rushed to Breezy Point, arriving about midnight. The house already was ablaze.

"I watched it burn down till 5:30 in the morning," he said. "It’s a helpless feeling."

Long came back from the 2005 bus crash to finish the New York City Marathon and Ironman Triathlon, a journey he chronicled in a 2010 book.

He said the family plans to move to nearby Belle Harbor, a decision it had been contemplating before Hurricane Sandy. It’ll be another comeback -- with two special eight-sided stones.

— With assistance from Martin Z. Braun and Chris Dolmetsch in New York and Steve Walsh in Washington.

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