By Anne Hayden
GUILDERLAND – In the weeks after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc along the East Coast, local fire departments volunteered to go to Long Island to help fortify the departments there, and assist in the clean-up efforts.
The Westmere, McKownville, and Guilderland Center fire departments each gathered a crew to be sent to Long Island on a staggered schedule.
“We were notified and asked to muster a crew,” said Dave Szary, chief of the Westmere Fire Department. “We had 13 volunteers sign up, but they only needed five people.” He sent out an e-mail and the first five men to respond were designated as the official crew.
Marc Scholer, from the McKownville Fire Department, went to Long Beach for 72 hours roughly two-and-a-half weeks after the hurricane hit on Oct. 29.
“It felt very reminiscent of New Orleans,” said Scholer, who also volunteered during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He described debris piled to the tops of houses and mountains of sand in places where it didn’t belong.
Scholer and the rest of the McKownville crew helped clean up one park, and, in another, sorted through mountains of debris to decide what could be saved, what should be recycled, and what was beyond salvaging.
Ted Raymond, who was part of the Westmere crew, said the debris stunned him.
“Driving through Long Beach, we saw personal belongings all over the road – clothes, furniture, pieces of houses – as well as many abandoned cars that had been ruined,” Raymond said.
He was there for 48 hours, working closely with another crew from a department in Colonie, and a ladder company from Suffolk County.
Raymond explained that the fire department with which Westmere partnered in Long Beach had lost all of its emergency response vehicles, except for one truck.
During the two days Westmere was there, the crew responded to seven calls, most of them for hazardous conditions.
James Bornt, also from Westmere, said the calls were related to power and gas being turned back on.
“As the gas came back on, people discovered broken pipes, so there were calls for natural gas leaks, carbon monoxide, things like that,” said Bornt.
Westmere didn’t answer fire calls while in Long Beach, but McKownville did.
Scholer said there was a fire on the second floor of a high-rise building, and it was described as a “mattress fire.” The cause wasn’t officially determined, but he said it was probably from a candle or a space heater.
“It was almost movie-esque going into that apartment building,” said Scholer. “Firefighters were filling the ground floor, there was smoke everywhere, people were streaming down the stairs, and one woman even collapsed in the lobby.”
In addition to cleaning up debris and responding to emergency calls, both crews helped firefighters who live in the Long Beach area gut their houses.
“All of their own homes were devastated,” said Scholer. “They had worked through the initial flood, but they had their own things to take care of, too.” Most houses in the area had their entire first floors ripped out, he said.
There was one house, he said, that had a beautiful deck in front of it, but, when you looked closely, you could see that the deck wasn’t attached to the house, and, in fact, didn’t belong to it – it had washed up in front of the house and settled there.
While the crews were helping the firefighters gut their homes, other people all up and down the streets were doing the same.
“It was amazing to see so many people moving so quickly to get things taken care of, and neighbors helping neighbors,” Scholer said.
Bornt wanted to clear up what he feels is a common misconception.
“When people think of Long Island, they think everyone is wealthy, and that’s not the case,” he said. “These are houses that were passed down from generation to generation; they are not just beach houses, they are year-round houses, and people won’t be getting to spend the holidays in them this year.”
The residents, said Scholer, were very appreciative of the help from the upstate fire departments. They would stop the men, ask where they were from, and give a sincere “thank you.”
“There was no one that was not happy to see us,” said Bornt. He said the local fire departments were just repaying the favor; crews from Long Island came to the area to help after Tropical Storm Irene caused damage to the Capital Region last year.
“The experience was surreal,” said Scholer.
“I would do it again,” Raymond said. “I only wish we could have done more.”