NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Families returned to Breezy Point, Queens, on the Rockaway Peninsula Wednesday night, after a devastating fire decimated their tight-knit community.
As CBS 2’s Maurice DuBois reported, the neighbors were exhausted and heartbroken as they were confronted with the harsh reality that there was almost nothing left.
CBS 2’s Cindy Hsu reported Wednesday that 111 homes were lost in a flash when the six-alarm fire ripped through the community during the storm Monday night. After the fire, there was barely any evidence of the houses’ existence except for concrete foundations.
Wood was reduced to ash, trees were rendered charred stumps, and metal was left melted. A mangled bicycle lying on its side in front of one of the foundations was among the few items that was even recognizable.
On Wednesday evening, Marie Loprestie, 71, was digging through the rubble of her home, determined to find something – anything. She found a single plate.
“It’s a plate I had in there. I didn’t even like it,” she said tearfully. “Thank you. Thank you.”
Loprestie had lived in Breezy Point for 34 years, in a row of houses just a block or two from the beach. But now, those houses are gone, replaced by a charred hole of dust and ash that resembles the scene after a bomb detonates.
The blaze was defined by “fire flames shooting up in the air 100, feet and moving quickly to the west driven by the hurricane,” said Fire Department Assistant Chief Joseph Pfeifer.
Loprestie was in her house with two neighbors.
“We thought we could fight it — at least we would have everything we owned,” she said. “But then the fire started coming and we couldn’t fight that.”
They sought refuge in yet another neighbor’s house. When that house caught fire, they fled to another.
After the fire, nothing was left of either house.
Laura Pfister and her son, Connor, were out of town at the time and came home to see the devastation just blocks from their own home.
“I didn’t know I’d be coming home to such devastation. I’ve been watching the news channels in the Berkshires, and they really didn’t show the real story of what’s here – just massive destruction. I don’t know what to say,” Laura Pfister said. “My neighbors have lost their only homes, and if the home wasn’t burned down, it was destroyed from water, taken off its foundation, and it’s just devastating damage here.”
Connor said one elderly woman didn’t want to leave her home, despite the raging, advancing flames.
“Everybody was just leaving, and then the Fire Department came in, and there was on old woman living right over there, and she didn’t want to leave her house. The Fire Department came and forced her out,” he said.
But Laura Pfister said the tight-knit community, which includes many firefighters and police officers, would rebuild.
“I imagine that’s the intention after we get over the shock of what’s happened,” she said. “We’re a tight community. We’ll be there for each other. We’re always there for other people, and we’ll all stick together. We all know each other. We all love each other, and we’re going to get through this. It’s just really hard.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo toured the scene earlier Wednesday, and said the state would help with the reconstruction of the community.
“Their lives are gone. Their lives were shattered,” Cuomo said. “They’re looking for places to stay.”
One of those pleased to meet the governor was a grateful Tommy Blair.
“This is the last house standing and we survived it. Why? A gift,” he said “But there’s so much sadness here.”
It took almost 200 firefighters to battle the blaze and the elements, CBS 2’s Hsu reported.
“We lost blocks of homes,” FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano said Tuesday. “The conditions that firefighters faced when they got here last night were really some of the worst conditions you could try to fight a fire in.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg compared the damage to a war zone.
“The area was completely leveled; chimneys and foundations were left of many of these homes,” Bloomberg said Tuesday. “It’s very sad they lost their homes. The good news is there’s no fatalities, thank God.”
The home of U.S. Rep. Bob Turner (R-Queens) was among those destroyed. He said in a statement that, along with many other Breezy Point residents, he had lost his home. He expressed gratitude that he and his family were safe after the destructive storm.
The western Rockaway Peninsula has seen more than its share of scares and tragedies over the years.
On Nov. 12, 2001, just two months after the 9/11 attacks, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in the center of Belle Harbor, neighboring Breezy Point. All 260 people on board were killed, along with five people on the ground.
And just last month, a tornado touched down in Breezy Point, sucking up water, sand and small pieces of buildings. In the storm’s wake, the community of seaside bungalows was littered with broken flower pots, knocked-down fences and smashed windows.
An FDNY spokesman said one firefighter suffered a minor injury and was taken to a hospital. Two civilians suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene.
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