Located on a small strip of beach in Queens, New York, and home to a large number of retired and current firefighters and police officers, Breezy Point has the unfortunate distinction of having lost the highest percentage of its residents on 9/11. Firefighter Lieutenant Kevin Dowdell, 46, was among them; he left behind his wife, RoseEllen, and their sons, Patrick, then 18, and James, then 17.
Perhaps drawn together by love and loss, RoseEllen Dowdell, 55, and Kevin Dowdell’s friend Tom O’Day, 57, now live together in Breezy Point, and on the evening of October 29, the wind was screaming outside their white bungalow. Dowdell had evacuated earlier that day, but O’Day and several hundred others decided to stay put in their houses in spite of a mandatory evacuation order from the mayor.
O’Day, a veteran firefighter, had planned to keep watch on the house during the worst of the storm. But as Sandy bore down, a surge of water overtook the neighborhood from two sides: the Atlantic Ocean to the south and Jamaica Bay to the north. O’Day and Dowdell’s home flooded immediately. “The water just kept coming,” he says. “It was mayhem. And then the fire came.”
Wind gusts of 70 mph quickly spread the blaze—thought to have started when a transformer exploded—igniting the bungalows and two-story houses built only a few feet from one another, in rows. Flooded streets prevented firefighters from getting close enough to douse the flames.
His house filled with five feet of water, O’Day gathered what he knew were some of Dowdell’s most precious things: photographs of her late husband with their sons. After gathering the photos, O’Day sought refuge at a nearby evacuation site.
Dowdell and O’Day’s home was spared from the fire, but many in the community weren’t as fortunate. Within three hours, the blaze leveled 111 homes, leaving scorched foundations in its wake and displacing hundreds of people. Miraculously, no one died.
“Add together all the fires and disasters I’ve seen: They don’t compare with this,” says O’Day.
Still, one of the few structures that remained untouched was the memorial to the 30 Breezy Point firefighters lost on 9/11, a cross made of steel from the World Trade Center, near O’Day and Dowdell’s house. Says O’Day, “It’s right near the edge of the beach, but it’s standing.”