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[Share]Published: November 21, 2012

Stories from Hurricane Sandy: Skiff 3

The piece of fence the firefighters used as a raft and ladder to rescue victims.

The piece of fence the firefighters used as a raft and ladder to rescue victims.

Many FDNY members became creative the night Hurricane Sandy hit, using tools in unusual ways and even creating their own life-saving equipment. Such was the case for Firefighters Paul Patras, Keith Calabrese and Kievon Harper, who were operating as part of Skiff 3 in the Rockaways that night.

The firefighters, who are part of the FDNY’s Marine Operations’ summer boat program, did multiple small rescues as the storm approached the city.

Then, as the water was rising at around 8 p.m., they were assigned to Beach 44th Street for people trapped in a home with no means of escape. The wind was strong and the water was moving quickly.

“We first tried to take the boat through an open area, but the water was so rough,” Firefighter Patras said. “The boat was going all over the place and was difficult to move. So we decided to move down a street where we could be shielded by buildings.”

They proceeded west on Beach Channel Drive and turned north on Beach 44th Street. On their route, they saw numerous people in second and third floor windows asking to be rescued, but firefighters reassured them to stay indoors, they were safer where they were.

The door in the backyard of the home where firefighters rescued three people.

The door in the backyard of the home where firefighters rescued three people.

As they moved down the street, they saw a faint flashlight inside a single-story home on Beach 45th Street. They knew they would not be able to turn around and take the boat down that street due to a number of exploding transformers in the area, so they moved towards a vacant lot behind the home on Beach 44th Street.

The lot was surrounded by an eight-foot metal fence and the water was level with the top of the fence. Firefighter Calabrese maneuvered the skiff around fire hydrants and floating cars to be parallel with the fence and tied the skiff to it.

Firefighters Patras and Harper grabbed two life vests and jumped into the fast-moving water.

“Kievon and I, without thinking, knew what the other was going to do,” Firefighter Patras said. “We didn’t have to talk, we just did it.”

They swam about 50 yards down an alleyway parallel to the fence, then climbed over it. They then ripped off a piece of a wood fence and swam under it to reach the home through the backyard.

They had to swim over a van and clear a great deal of debris to reach the door. Once inside, they found three people standing on top of furniture, just to keep their heads above the rising waters.

“We saw the water rising and [the home] only had one floor,” Firefighter Patras said. “That’s all they had. They couldn’t go anywhere, so it was our goal to get them out.”

They removed the three people from the home and into the backyard. Since they only had two life vests, they moved the 82-year-old man on top of the shed outside and put the two women (one in her 50s and the other in her 30s) in the vests. Firefighter Calabrese kept a spotlight on the man to keep him in sight.

The metal fence and lot firefighters went thorugh to reach the home where three victims were trapped.

The metal fence and lot firefighters went thorugh to reach the home where three victims were trapped.

To help get the women to the boat, the firefighters got creative. They fashioned a raft out of a piece of wood fence and used it to float the women to the area of the skiff. Then, they turned over the piece of fence to use as a ladder for them to climb over the metal fence and onto the boat.

Firefighters Patras and Harper then swam back to the man with another life vest. Firefighter Patras asked him if he had a ladder in his home, and the victim said there was one in the shed on which he was sitting. So Firefighter Patras dove under water and located the six-foot metal ladder.

They again used the piece of fence to float him to the boat, then the metal ladder to move him to the skiff.

“We tried to take apart the metal fence a few times, but couldn’t get it to move,” Firefighter Patras said. “This was the only way over, so when we got the ladder it worked perfectly.”

As they started moving the victims to safety, a woman from a neighboring building yelled to the firefighters that a pregnant woman was inside her house and was having stomach pains. The firefighters advised her to keep everyone on the second floor and not evacuate until they could return to assist.

Firefighter Calabrese maneuvered the skiff around floating cars, telephone poles and other debris on their way to higher ground, as Firefighters Patras and Harper helped treat the patients who had hypothermia and abrasions.

They called EMS members, who met them at Beach 32nd Street.

Firefighters then turned the skiff around and returned to Beach 44th Street, where they evacuated two women (one of whom was pregnant), four children and three infants. They also treated them for hypothermia as they sped toward awaiting EMS members.

“Any of the [firefighters] I work with would have done the same thing without blinking,” Firefighter Patras said. “Afterwards, one of the ladies sent picture, drawn by her son, of the boat, two people on it, one screaming for help. She said her kids were so happy to be ok … And that’s what this job is about, helping people out.”

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