Tag Archives: persons of the year

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


| tcullen@queenscourier.com

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.”

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Queens Courier Persons of the Year honoree: York College students


| mhayes@queenscourier.com

Photo courtesy of York College

When Sandy left thousands of people displaced, York College in Jamaica acted as one of the biggest shelters following the storm. Hundreds of York students lent a helping hand, and then some.

“We started to realize that there is power in numbers,” said Daniele Fallon, an occupational therapy (OT) student who worked with evacuees.

And the numbers grew. Roughly 130 students from the OT department, and many more from different campus organizations, alumni and surrounding schools, worked around the clock with storm victims for two straight weeks. They were provided food, clothes and most importantly, shelter.

Dr. Jean Phelps, director of student activities, oversaw a lot of the work that was being done, including an extensive collection of donations and caring for displaced children.

Phelps recalled how one evacuee told her, “You could feel the care [at York], you could feel the love. Everybody treated you with such dignity and respect.”

“[The students] really went the extra mile,” said Phelps.

The OT department collected funds reaching over $1,000 and used the money to purchase new jackets, toiletries and anything else that their guests needed.

“We were trying to tap into the unmet needs of individual people,” said Fallon.

York’s “Helping Hands” club collected items for evacuees, and also for York students that were affected by the storm. The Seek Student Society also assisted in collecting and distributing items, along with donating a significant amount of their time.

With Sandy hitting just before Halloween, the students organized a party for the kids, complete with costumes and trick-or-treating. They also created a “fun room” for the kids where they had movies playing around the clock and, for a few hours each day, other activities such as face painting.

After York’s two-week stint as home for over 1,000 evacuees, students continued to work to provide for those who lost everything. They continued to collect donations, both goods and money, and personally delivered them to the Rockaways.

“Boxes just kept coming in,” said Fallon. “It’s always nice to see that there are people just willing to jump in and help.”

“I have a feeling that people will remember this experience,” she added. “The next disaster that strikes within our community, you can see that it just takes a few people to get the ball rolling.”

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Sandy first responders honored as Queens Courier Persons of the Year


| editorial@queenscourier.com

Persons of the Year

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 are some of their stories…

Dylan Smith

Dylan Smith saved the lives of six people during Sandy using just his surfboard, but tragically lost his own life just months later while on the water. On the night of Monday, October 29, Smith, 23, heroically paddled through the floodwaters into his neighbors’ homes in Belle Harbor, and, using a homemade rope bridge along with his surfboard, moved people to safety. Read more

Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department

By now, everyone knows the story. More than 120 houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point the night Sandy struck. It was one of the most destructive residential fires in New York City history. Houses were lost, but lives were saved. Read more

Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department

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.” Read more

West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department

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. Read more

Queens Courier Persons of the Year honoree: Dylan Smith


| mhayes@queenscourier.com

Photo Courtesy The New York Daily News

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…

Dylan Smith saved the lives of six people during Sandy using just his surfboard, but tragically lost his own life just months later while on the water.

On the night of Monday, October 29, Smith, 23, heroically paddled through the floodwaters into his neighbors’ homes in Belle Harbor, and, using a homemade rope bridge along with his surfboard, moved people to safety. However, Smith was found floating near his surfboard in the waters of Puerto Rico on Sunday, December 23, according to police. A local surfer rushed him to shore, but he could not be resuscitated.

“It’s such a sad loss,” said Jimmy Dowd. “You’ve got this great kid that does the right thing for everyone, going through his life, and he just gets taken like that.”

“He was just that all-around, neighborhood American boy,” he added. “He was a real zest-for-life kind of kid.”

Dowd, who owns a clothing company in the Rockaways, recalled that Smith really enjoyed drawing and sketching, saying he was “good with the pencil.” Smith had submitted some of his images to Dowd, and the two were talking about putting them onto T-shirts to sell.

During the summers, Smith was a lifeguard in Rockaway, and spent as much time as he could on the beach. He was a very “solid” part of the neighborhood, according to Dowd, and was always very outgoing and willing to lend a helping hand.

“He’d go out of his way for people,” said Dowd. “He was a really big-hearted, good kid.”

When summers subsided and winters settled in, Smith would fly south to spend time in Rincon, Puerto Rico. FDNY Chief Michael Light, a family friend who knew Smith his whole life, told the Daily News that Smith went to the popular surfing spot on Maria’s Beach to “unwind” and “blow off some steam.”

On the night of the storm, the young surfer acted with longtime neighbor, Michael McDonnell. The pair rescued their Beach 130th Street neighbors not only from the rising flood, but also from widespread house fires.

Following Sandy, both Smith and McDonnell were named two of People magazine’s 2012 Heroes of the Year.

- With additional reporting by Cristabelle Tumola

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Queens Courier Persons of the Year honoree: Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department


| aaltman@queenscourier.com

DSC_0413w

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.”

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