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 . .
It began as a glow to the west, a speck of twinkling amber light in the darkness. From the loft above the Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department’s station, the crew watched as the flicker became a blaze, carrying a once charming beachfront neighborhood into the night sky in embers and smoke.
“Oh my God,” they said. “Breezy’s burning.”
By dawn, the Breezy Point fire consumed over 120 homes, displacing hundreds during the most devastating storm to hit the East Coast in years. The Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department was one of the first outfits to respond to the fire — the most destructive one Chief Richard Colleran had witnessed in more than four decades of service.
Sandy provided unexpected complications for the volunteer company. Around 6:25 p.m. on Monday, October 29, water entered the firehouse. Within 15 minutes, the tide rose up to their knees. Colleran ordered his 12 remaining crew members to the studio apartment-sized room above the station where they watched the fire as it grew larger. Then, they lost all communication.
“We didn’t know how high the fire was going to get or when it was going to stop,” said Colleran.
One of the firefighters, a dispatcher with the FDNY, sent a distress signal to alert the borough’s dispatch center about the expanding inferno. Helpless, all they could do was wait and watch as the glow off in the distance crept closer.
Around 10 p.m., the flood receded enough to move the trucks from the station. The water-logged engines took several tries to start before sputtering on, gurgling under the weight of several feet of ocean. The crew members jumped on their soaked trucks and moved towards the blaze.
At 8th and Ocean Avenues, the nexus of the flash, the Roxbury Department met with members of Rockaway Point Volunteer Fire Company, who at the mercy of the tide were left without equipment. Broken water mains and defunct hydrants led Colleran and his men to draft seawater from where they stood using a floating strainer and suction — a piece of equipment that no other fire company in the area owned. They came in from the north side, attacking the fire to ensure it did not spread any further. Propane barbecue tanks and transformers burst like cherry bombs around the firefighters who sprayed the climbing flames.
“The fire was around us and all over the place. I don’t know how many houses were gone at the time,” Colleran said.
Back at the Roxbury Fire Station, Colleran’s wife Mary watched the blaze, terrified.
“The scary thing was these guys were the only ones who could put water on the fire,” she said. “None of the other departments could — I just kept praying these guys were OK — that was a scary night.”
Several hours into fighting the fire, trucks began disappearing. Drivers left their men standing in the watery inferno, confused. The pump used to harness seawater broke. City fire departments had finally arrived, drafting water with their rigs. With the blaze contained, Colleran and his men made their way back to their station house, exhausted. They didn’t have to make any rescues or pull anyone from the fire. There were no lives lost. For that, they were thankful.
Since the storm, the Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department has been running a makeshift mini-mart, stocking shelves of baby formula, chips and bottled water for locals in need. Construction paper pennants and cards, scribbled with magic marker offer pleas of strength and hope from students in the surrounding New York area.
“Stay strong!” some say. “Don’t give up hope.”
Fifteen families have called the station house “home” for the past few months, sleeping in the same loft where the staff watched the fire. Every day, the lunch crowd for Mary Colleran’s ribs and sausages grows smaller. Richard Colleran used to monitor how many visitors stopped in by how many times he needed to refill the coffee pot. The number has dwindled as the displaced find refuge elsewhere.
It will be months before Richard and Mary Colleran return to their home on the bayfront in Roxbury, which swallowed over six feet of water, lost its deck and suffered a cracked foundation. Their furniture is gone and their insurance won’t cover any of it.
Regarded as extraordinary, the veteran firefighter said he did not feel his actions during the fire warranted herculean praise.
“They were calling him a hero,” said Mary.
“Oh? Nah, just doing what we do,” Colleran said. “I just went down there to do whatever I could do. I’ve been trying to help people for years and I’m still going to help people.”
More Queens Courier Persons of the Year honorees: