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[Share]Published: November 13, 2012

Stories from Hurricane Sandy: Firefighters Aboard Swift Water 6

One of the FDNY's Zodiac boats

One of the FDNY's Zodiac boats

In his 32-years at the FDNY, Lt. Robert La Rocco said this was one of his “most defining adventures.” He led the members of Swift Water 6 (a unit put into service during emergencies like hurricanes) – including FFs Jonathan Hoffman, Edward Morrison, Christopher Rooney, Thomas Fee and Michael Wood – to rescue dozens of people trapped by flood waters and fire on the night Hurricane Sandy hit.

Lt. La Rocco said for about 12 hours before the storm even hit, they responded to several calls on the bay-side of the Rockaways, and removed approximately 12 stranded people using their Zodiac boat.

“We knew by the weather reports that the storm was going to hit later in the day,” Lt. La Rocco said. “We had it in the back of our minds that high tide was at 7:30 p.m., so we knew it would get worse.”

He was right.

At around 8 p.m., Swift Water 6 was headed down Rockaway Beach Boulevard, about to drop off two people they moved from a retirement center nearby. At that time, they remembered the water was moving over the tops of cars, so they headed toward higher ground, at around Beach 116th Street.

As they moved in that direction, they saw a fire in several buildings at Beach 114th Street.

So they quickly dropped off the two victims and then sped in the direction of the fire. When they arrived, they found four buildings fully engulfed with fire and 13 people trapped on the roofs of several two-story structures nearby. The high winds were pushing the fire like a blow torch over their heads.

“They were beyond panicked,” Lt. La Rocco said. “We had our hands full.”

As their boat approached, two victims immediately jumped into the water and were pulled into the boat by firefighters.

The firefighters then jumped into the five-foot deep water that they described as moving like rapids. Then they either scaled the awning to get to the roof or forced open the door and took out windows to reach the victims.

There was a two-foot gap between the buildings, so they jumped to the next building to reach the victims. They then took doors off their hinges to lay them atop the gap, so to safely move the victims back.

They then lowered the scared victims to the water and Firefighter Woods then moved the individuals to the boat using a tether. The others also formed a human chain, moving the women and children to the boat first. As firefighters continued to move people to safety, Lt. La Rocco was on the boat, shielding the victims from the flames with his body. He said the flames were so close, it singed the back of his neck.

They did not have a lot of room on the boat, but they knew the fire was moving so quickly that there was no time to leave some and come back for them later. So they moved the victims onto the boat, all of whom said they could not swim and knew limited English, and the firefighters walked alongside it.

“I couldn’t believe the fire was roaring like it was,” said Firefighter Rooney, who also noted that he was a lifeguard for 11 years and never saw water move like it was that night. “It was luck that we were there – we were in the right place at the right time. Anyone else in same situation would have done what we did.”

They then took them to Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Beach 116th Street, where firefighters and NYPD officers helped them evacuate the victims.

The firefighters then grabbed a portable ladder and took it back to the area to remove a few victims who were trapped in buildings down the block.

In all, about 35 victims were rescued on that night, including adults, children, an infant and a small dog. Nine structures burned.

Lt. La Rocco said the firefighters aboard Swift Water 6 did an outstanding job that night, working together to save multiple lives.

“When you do a rescue, and you know you’re the only person to come between this person and their maker, you know you did your job and you did it well.”

But, he added, he has seen the damage caused in areas from the Rockaways to Staten Island and feels terrible for the people who have lost everything.

“There are so many displaced people here, in New York City, it’s amazing,” he said. “We’ll just do everything we can now to make sure people can get back on their feet.”

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