Huge fire in Sandy’s wake destroys NYC beach community

Posted By Stabroek staff On October 31, 2012

ROCKAWAYS, New York,  (Reuters) – Just before dinner on Monday night, 75-year-old Bruce Bavasso was slugging back sambuca with his neighbors in a private beach community in the Rockaways in New York City. There was a lot of pasta, some hurricane humor and a lot of ribbing about the storm.

This was Belle Harbor, the same broad-shouldered, tight-knit beach community where an American Airlines plane crashed in November 2001, killing all aboard and five people on the ground. There was no way tragedy would strike the place again, or so Bavasso and his friends thought.
By early yesterday morning, Bavasso’s three-storey house was a pile of smoldering rubble, one of about a dozen homes in Belle Harbor destroyed by fire as Sandy hammered the U.S. East Coast.  

In nearby Breezy Point, 110 homes burned to the ground and another 20 were damaged by flames spread by near-hurricane force winds, according to a fire department spokesperson.

“We watched all the houses burn. The firemen couldn’t come,” said Bavasso, a retired math teacher. “My BBQ got barbecued.”
Like Breezy Point, Belle Harbor sits on a narrow spit of land that thrusts into the Atlantic Ocean southwest of the John F. Kennedy International Airport. The area had been extensively flooded by Sandy’s record storm surge, which marooned the beach community from firefighters who sped to the scene.

Both neighborhoods had been under a mandatory evacuation order but many people had remained, thinking they could take care of themselves. A lot of retired cops and firefighters live in the area.

Belle Harbor residents say the first house to light up around 9 p.m. EDT on Monday was on 129th Street. The wind blew the blaze catty-corner to the top of Bavasso’s 100-year-old wood-framed house, one street up.

From there, it was a fireball domino, engulfing one house and then the next, and then leaping across the street to torch the Harbor Light Pub.
“All of the sudden, the wind shifted, and it blew the fire right up the block,” said builder Jonathan O’Leary, 39.

The cause of the fires, which raged through the night, was being investigated. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg said there were no casualties in the Breezy Point fire. It was not yet known if anyone died in Belle Harbor. “To describe it as looking like pictures we’ve seen of the end of World War Two is not overstating it,” Bloomberg, who walked through the area, told a news conference. “The area was completely leveled. Chimneys and foundations were all that was left of many of these homes.”

Residents in Far Rockaway could see the flames in Belle Harbor, and beyond that, the balls of fire in Breezy Point, which by sun up would be a smoking ruin.

FIRE AND WATER
When they saw the first flames, Bavasso and his wife and son rushed to their basement. But then their basement windows started to buckle, and water poured in. Bavasso raced upstairs and threw his family’s passports, birth certificates, cell phones and keys into a plastic bag. “I was pulled out of the flames,” Bavasso said. “The water was coming from everywhere, at such speed.”

The next thing Bavasso remembers is hanging on to the shoulder of his friend, O’Leary, who had donned a bathing suit and swam through 6 feet (1.82 meter) of water to rescue his neighbors across the street. Other residents used surf boards and boogie boards.

The night was mad with the sound of sirens as fire trucks raced to the rescue. But the floods had surged too high, too fast. Fire trucks trying to get to Breezy Point encountered a wall of water outside and in Belle Harbor. Firefighters had to wade waist deep to get to the blaze, or use inflatable boats.

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