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[Share]Published: November 08, 2012

Stories from Hurricane Sandy: Lt. Kevin O’Connor

Engine 268

Engine 268

Lt. Kevin O’Connor, from Engine 268 in the Rockaways, was working the night Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. In the 32 years he has worked for the FDNY, he said he has never seen anything like it.

“I’m not going to lie, it was scary,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. The night just became all about the guys and the people we work for. It was all about life safety.”

At the start of the evening, Ladder 137’s apparatus broke down, and as they towed it back to the firehouse, Lt. O’Connor said he smelled something burning.

They quickly met the members aboard Swift Boat 6, a special unit deployed in water emergencies, and they hurried to 110th and 111th Streets.

That’s when the tidal surge rushed toward them.

“We tried to get closer [to the fire], but the water was 5½-feet high,” Lt. O’Connor said. “It was up to the windshield of the rig.”

He said they could not move any closer to the fire, so they had to sit back and wait for the water to recede before they could do anything else.

“It was so difficult to hold [the firefighters] back,” he said. “But hydrants were submerged and we had to stay at higher ground … but it was really hard to sit back and not be able to help.”

Then, he said, they started seeing people’s heads peeking out the windows of buildings near the fire building.

Firefighters in the Swift Boat moved down the block with the boat, while the members of Engine 268 and Ladder 137 grabbed ladders and waded – in full gear – through the nearly 6-foot deep water to get the victims. The firefighters had to be mindful of the speed of the water’s movement as well as the debris that could easily have knocked them over or carried them to sea.

“I took a big chance taking my guys out as far as I did,” he said.

Five or six firefighters together held the ladders in place and asked people to quickly climb down. They then had them walk to a safer location on 116th Street (where their apparatus was parked) or, with the elderly or children, wait for the Swift Boat to take them.

Firefighters then forced open the door of a building to give the victims shelter.

Within about 45 minutes to an hour, he said they rescued 25 to 30 people.

When the waters subsided and were about thigh deep, Lt. O’Connor said they could move the apparatus to a location where they would be able to fight the fire. He said they went down the block to around 115th Street and took a defensive position to stop the fire from spreading any further.

“By the grace of God, we stopped it,” he said. Because of the wind, “I wasn’t sure we would be able to.”

Chief Robert Maynes, Queens Borough Commander, said that because of their work, at least 45 homes were saved.

“There are a tremendous number of books we have about firefighting,” Lt. O’Connor said. “But none of them cover something like this. You have to just wing it.

“There’s a saying in the job that sometimes we’re more lucky than good, and that might be the case here. I’m just amazed we pulled it off.”

Looking back on the work they did that night, he commended the firefighters for their unbelievable work. But, he noted, he feels terrible for the people affected by the storm, “They are hurting and it breaks my heart. They’re in a bad way at a bad time of year. But New York is resilient; we’ll get through this.”

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