Taking Care of Their Own: Upper Valley Firefighters Travel to New York to Help Sandy Recovery Efforts

Sunday, December 02, 2012
Queens, N.Y. — Three firefighters wearing dust masks faced a bolted door in a ruined apartment in the Rockaways section of New York’s outer boroughs. One held a crowbar. Two others, on the opposite side of the door, waited.

“Hold on,” said one of the men, wearing a Lebanon Fire Department T-shirt. “You got to hit it.”

At that signal, Troy Leatherman, a Hanover firefighter, swung his crowbar and smashed the door. Glass shattered. A shard landed on the floor of what used to be the kitchen, its tiles caked in sediment.

Eric James and Jon Copeland, both Lebanon firefighters, began to tear at the door.

After several minutes of struggling, they managed to break it down, and moved forward, like a wrecking crew, into the next room, ripping out drywall, yanking up the floorboards, gutting an apartment that had been under six feet of floodwater several weeks earlier.

Later, the busted door was carried out of the apartment and tossed onto a pile, joining other debris and wreckage caused by Superstorm Sandy.

Five From the Valley

A week ago, five Upper Valley firefighters drove down to the Rockaway Peninsula — one of the southernmost points of New York City and one of the areas hit hardest by Sandy — to help fellow firefighters.

They left Sunday morning and headed directly to Red Hook section of Brooklyn, where they dropped off donations at the firehouse headquarters of Friends of Firefighters, a group of volunteers who are providing relief to FDNY members who lost their property in Sandy.

Leatherman said the firefighters — two from Lebanon, two from Hanover and one from Pomfret — piled two pickups and a small trailer full with tools, dehumidifiers and miscellaneous supplies. They had collected donations at the Lebanon and Hanover firehouses, and on the way down stopped in Exeter, N.H., where the fire department had also coordinated a donation drive.

They also brought with them about $1,200 in cash and gift card donations. It’s all going to New York firefighters and their families, said Leatherman, who helped with Hurricane Katrina relief seven years ago. It’s a way, he explained, for firefighters to take care of their own.

“These guys are out there helping others while their homes are literally burning down,” Leatherman said.

On Tuesday, Friends of Firefighters organizers dispatched the Upper Valley volunteers to a small five-apartment complex in the Rockaways, where Dean Neligan, an FDNY firefighter and the property’s owner, had been at work salvaging since the storm. The three upstairs units escaped massive destruction, but the two at ground level endured substantial water damage and had to be gutted. Floodwater had filled the basement to the brim.

The water has long receded, but now steps needed to be taken to mitigate mold. Day after day, Neligan said, the gutting of the building continues.

“Every freaking day it’s like the same thing,” he said. “It’s like a black hole. It’s like a treadmill going nowhere.”

The Upper Valley firefighters, along with Lesley Ryder, a Brooklyn resident lending a hand, arrived at the apartments at 9 a.m. They began ripping out the drywall and the waterlogged insulation behind it. They took a circular saw to the floor paneling.

“Anything that looks like garbage is garbage,” Neligan told them.

“If it quacks like a duck,” James added.

The firefighters weren’t helping each other simply because they preferred to be among their own kind, said Chris Reilly, a 30-year veteran of the Pomfret Fire Department. Instead, he said, firefighters have a sort of unspoken code that bars them from accepting help from the people they’re paid to serve. But when one of their brethren is in need, they answer the call.

So, with his friends setting to work clearing Neligan’s basement, Reilly positioned himself on the street, grabbing filled trash cans from the people in the basement and emptying them out. He said that, last year, when Tropical Storm Irene pummeled the Upper Valley, he spent six days driving a tractor to clear mud between West Hartford and Sharon.

Some of the New Hampshire-based firefighters recalled working at the Upper Valley Plaza in West Lebanon, clearing debris from the front of JC Penney — and remembered the other firefighter crews arriving from all across the country.

Later, Wayne Dunham, a Hanover firefighter, stood outside, taking over from Reilly. Dunham said he had planned to travel to Joplin, Mo., last year to help with relief efforts following the tornado that killed more than 150 people, but was prevented by scheduling conflicts. So when the opportunity to help with Sandy efforts came up, Dunham decided to head to New York, burning a vacation day in the process.

“I wanted to do it,” Dunham said. “Kind of pay it forward.”

At 11:30 a.m., the work of tearing apart the apartments was done, and the firefighters departed, leaving the rooms like unlit husks, their floor tiles pulled up and their walls torn out.

One of the only things they did not remove, and left resting on a ledge between two rooms, was a color photograph of a young girl, sitting at a small table, posing with her chin in her hand.

Copeland said the picture could have come from any of abandoned homes in the neighborhood — swept up by floodwaters or moved around during cleanup efforts. None of the firefighters knew who the girl was.

An Area Blighted

Nearly five weeks after Sandy blasted the Rockaway Peninsula, much of the area still resembles a war zone.

The scene of destruction begins a few miles away, on Cross Bay Boulevard, the road connecting mainland Queens to Rockaway peninsula. And it extends all the way to the peninsula’s tip: Breezy Point, a beach community now known for the swath of 100-plus homes that burned to the ground during the storm. During the storm, the houses’ basements flooded while their main floors burned.

Fire department officials had no choice but to let the fire burn itself out.

Though vehicles pass through the area regularly, projecting an aura of normalcy, many stores and businesses remain shuttered. Buildings continue to rely on generators because electricity has not been restored. Signs, whether labeling relief centers, asking for help or touting the city’s endurance, are made out of crude plywood.

And city officials still swarm the Rockaways. Trucks from the New York Department of Sanitation comb the streets, looking to pick up debris. Well-dressed women from the Department of Health hand out surgical masks for those venturing into buildings of questionable safety. Police officers close off some streets. Army Humvees rumble down others.

The Brotherhood

There are 11 bunk beds in the Friends of Firefighters center meant to put up firefighters visiting from out of town. According to Operations Manager Meghan Zichelli, the nonprofit has housed crews from Iowa, Maryland, Louisiana, Missouri, even France.

The organization was founded after 9/11, when its original goal was to provide help to FDNY firefighters and their families. But times, situations and requirements are unpredictable.

“The needs are constantly changing,” Zichelli said. “We weren’t doing hurricane relief before this.”

At Tuesday’s work site, the Upper Valley firefighters were the only ones from out of town. But when the men first arrived a couple of days earlier, they bunked with a group from Biloxi, Miss. And late Tuesday night, they were joined by 14 firefighters from New Orleans.

They returned to the center from the Rockaways at about 5 p.m. Tuesday and spread around the house. Some showered, getting ready for dinner. Others sat at a table near a spiral staircase and an industrial kitchen, sipping coffee.

“This situation, it could have fallen apart really fast,” Ryder, the volunteer from Brooklyn, reflected.

Besides the Upper Valley group, she was speaking to a handful of retired FDNY firefighters who each spend a few nights a week volunteering at the firehouse, providing manual labor as well as emotional support to anyone there who may happen to be in need.

In the main room, one of those retirees, Kenny Pogan, said he spent 39 years with the FDNY, working in both Brooklyn and Staten Island. Since Sandy, he’s been helping with odds and ends around the firehouse, which itself was flooded under four feet of water at one point during the storm.

“It’s just nice that they’re giving their time,” he said. “Firemen are good that way.”

The Odyssey

Shortly before 1 p.m., the Upper Valley firefighters took a break from working on Neligan’s apartments to eat lunch. Leatherman had heard that a firehouse within walking distance was serving food to volunteers, and figured they should check it out.

They set off, walking past a nail salon converted into emergency storage space. They passed other volunteers wearing dust masks, working on clearing out stores and residences. They passed an operations office for Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement that coordinates volunteer groups.

And they passed a pile of charred rubble, flanked on both sides by intact buildings. Leatherman said that the heap of debris is all that remains of a church that had stood on the spot. Leaning against the pile was a piece of plywood painted with the words: OUR HOUSE OF WORSHIP BURNED.

The firefighters finally made it to the Rockaway Park firehouse, only to discover there wasn’t any food available. Leatherman flagged down a pair of NYPD officers, who told him to head to the Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department.

Reilly drove his truck, with Copeland in the passenger seat, toward Breezy Point, emblematic of Sandy’s destruction. Pop tunes played on the radio. Copeland mentioned, offhandedly, that the Friends of Firefighters firehouse, which was built in the 19th century and where they were staying while in Queens, was haunted.

Reilly backed up the claim. He recalled waking up extremely early that morning and was cleaning up around the firehouse when he said he saw a shadowy figure — he could make it out even in the relative darkness of the room — in his periphery. He turned around to get a better look, but saw nothing. Then he heard the sound of a door slamming, even though all the doors were closed.

He figured it was a benign spirit.

“My theory is that firefighters never die,” Reilly said. “They go to the station house.”

When they arrived at the Point Breeze firehouse and discovered it wasn’t serving lunch either, Reilly detoured to a parking lot adjacent to Breezy Point’s burned-out homes. He parked. Beside him, a burned-out car, reduced to its skeleton frame by fire, had rolled atop another. A tiny slice of tire clung uselessly to the top car’s rear right wheel.

Reilly pointed to the house they had worked on the day before, which they could get to only by walking straight through the ruins about them. He offered Copeland a bag of trail mix.

As firefighters, they figured they had long seen the worst fury that either nature or man could inflict.

Until Sandy, that is.

“You see this, and even for us, you go, ‘Holy (expletive),’ ” Copeland said.

The Upper Valley firefighters would finally find a meal near the ruined homes in Breezy Point. There, a pair of tents — one for sitting down to eat and one full of FDNY firefighters working a lunch line, dishing out pulled pork, coleslaw, minestrone soup and bread.

It was the end of the odyssey, the tour through a hellish peninsula.

Earlier, on the way to their trucks, the firefighters passed a man in an Army uniform, standing alongside a camouflaged Humvee, blocking off a street. Dunham, an Iraq veteran, shook the man’s hand. Reilly did the same.

“Thanks for being out there,” Reilly said.

“No problem,” the man responded. “You too, for being out here.”

‘Got to Get Gutted’

The Upper Valley firefighters who visited the Rockaway Peninsula have no expectations that the work will be completed anytime soon.

Leatherman said he met a surfer at dinner on Monday night who told him how much he was looking forward to riding some waves at Rockaway Beach next summer.

Leatherman told the surfer he wasn’t sure the beach would be ready to welcome surfers, let alone anyone else, by then.

The firefighters spent four days doing as much as they could, using only their tools and hands. On Tuesday, they worked on one basement and two apartments, three small pieces of property on one street in one neighborhood of a storm-ravaged pocket of the East Coast.

From a broad perspective, amid all the destruction and all the work that remains to be done, the firefighters’ contributions do not appear to add up to much. But for those affected, the help is incalculable.

Not long after the Upper Valley firefighters arrived to lend a hand at Neligan’s apartment complex, Neligan himself stood outside, the brim of a baseball cap catching drops of a steady rainfall, a dust mask hanging around his neck.

Much of his building’s debris had been heaped in a pile behind him.

“You got to get gutted before you can move forward,” he said.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.