Queens Courier Persons of the Year honoree: West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department


| tcullen@queenscourier.com |

THE COURIER/Photo by Terence M. Cullen
THE COURIER/Photo by Terence M. Cullen

With 2012 behind us, The Queens Courier is paying tribute to the first responders — those men and women who put their lives on the line every day, and who braved Sandy’s wrath to save, and help rebuild, lives.

They have earned our respect and admiration, and a debt of gratitude. Here is one of their stories…

The West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department station house is on a strip of land that isn’t far from the water.

So when the storm surge from Sandy started to rise up in the hamlet on Jamaica Bay, it brought seven feet of water into the firehouse where eight volunteers — five firefighters and three EMTs — were on duty.

The residents of Hamilton Beach, which is in Zone A, had evacuated for the most part, according to Jonah Cohen, the chief. But those who stayed needed to be rescued. With their trucks damaged by the flooding and no way to walk through, the fire department had to improvise to save lives.

“We used a boat that was donated to us last year [for Hurricane Irene],” Cohen said. The boat rescued two people who remained at the firestation until the waters receded.

Though that was the sole mission that October night, according to Cohen, the fire department waited for the water to recede around 11 p.m. The next day, they assessed the damage: Three fire trucks, a chief’s car, two personal cars and one ambulance were damaged by Sandy. Lines on the windshields of the fire trucks marked how high the water rose.

Five members of the fire department live in the neighborhood and had to cope with the storm on two fronts. Once they were off-call or done assessing the damage, Cohen said they were relieved by others to focus on the destruction done to their own homes.

“Anybody who lives in the area had damage to their homes,” he said. “They dealt with it that night, and then when they found out what damage was done to their own homes, they basically needed to take care of business.”

Without any life-saving equipment, the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department did what it could as first responders. They took in and distributed cleaning supplies, clothing and food.

“The day after, and for over a month, that’s what we were doing was handing out different products for the people who were here that were trying to clean up their homes and of course to feed them,” said Cohen.

Reconstruction is well underway. To the east of the firehouse, the rail tracks of the A line are being repaired. To the west, just down Davenport Court Road, there’s the wooden frame of a house that will soon be built.

The firehouse parking lot, underwater during Sandy, is once again filled with fire trucks and ambulances. While some bear the old “West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department” emblem, others, bear such names as “Berlin” from Pennsylvania, a testament to the fact that fire departments across the country stepped in to donate equipment.

In one corner, there is a colossal truck with both “FDNY” logos and emblems bearing the shape of Louisiana. Cohen, pointing out how remarkable the truck is in size and condition, explained it had gone back and forth between the two states after Hurricane Katrina and was donated to help after Sandy.

Today, calls are back to normal at the fire department, with some days busy and others quiet.

“The emergency calls are still normal,” he said. “Some days we have a lot; some days are very light. It’s like everything else.”

More Queens Courier Persons of the Year: