Staten Islanders tell of heart-stopping rescues, heartbreaking losses as death toll mounts

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Rafting down Hylan Blvd., a major Staten Island thoroughfare. ()
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Jed Lipinski

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At 7:30 p.m. on Monday night, as Hurricane Sandy churned toward the coastline, Donna Carnivale, 51, was baking ziti in her one-story bungalow in the Midland Beach section of Staten Island when she heard a neighbor scream.

She flung open the front door in time to see a cluster of cars bobbing down the street, buoyed on the rising flood water. As she did so, water began pouring into her house. 

Carnivale, who works at the deli counter at a local ShopRite, managed to slam the door shut, and ran to grab armfuls of pillows, blankets, three gallon-bottles of water and the green reflective vest she uses when riding her bike at night. Her husband, Kevin Burr, a burly 55-year-old with diabetes and high blood pressure, filled a box with power tools, a jigsaw, an axe, and rolls of toilet paper. Together they climbed up into their attic.

Within minutes, the water had reached the top step of the attic stairs. High tide was still over an hour away.

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“This is why my husband is my hero,” Carnivale told me as she sat at a cafeteria table in a storm shelter at Tottenville High School the following afternoon. While they were in the attic her husband sawed a hole in the roof, and then swam back into the first floor to turn off the standing gas pilots.

“That way our house wouldn’t explode,” she said happily.

The couple remained in the attic overnight. Shortly after dawn, Carnivale heard helicopter propellors chopping the air overhead, and managed to flag one down by waving the green vest out of the hole in the roof.

The New York Police Department’s Scuba Team pulled Carnivale out of the attic, squeezed her into a metal basket dangling from a helicopter, and set her aloft. (Burr, too heavy for an airlift, was placed in an NYPD rowboat and rowed to higher ground.)

“When I was up there in that basket, I got a view of my whole neighborhood,” Carnivale said. “It looked like those pictures of Katrina, where you could only see the tips of the houses for blocks and blocks. Like they were set in the middle of a lake.”

Carnivale is not the first to make the comparison between Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, and though on a wide scale the usefulness of those comparisons may be debatable, it fits the experience of many Staten Islanders caught in this superstorm.

Her story is not unique, but it ended happily where others did not. Of the 34 deaths in New York City that some media outlets are counting, 14 occurred in Staten Island.

One of those deaths was 28-year-old off-duty cop Artur Kasprzak, whose home was in the South Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, just north of Carinvale's neighborhood. Here's how an official statement from the NYPD recounts his story:

As flood water surged into the house, Officer Kasprzak was able to get six adults and a 15-month-old boy into his attic to escape the rapidly rising water. Officer Kasprzak then told one of the women he was going to check the basement, but would be right back.

After he did not return, she called 911 to report Officer Kasprzak missing. NYPD Emergency Service and SCUBA units quickly responded, but could not access the home due to down, electrified power lines in the water. A search commenced as soon as the house was safe to enter.

At approximately 7 a.m. Tuesday, Officer Kasprzak's body was located, unconscious and unresponsive, in the basement. EMTs pronounced him dead at the scene.

Near the South Beach shoreline, police spent much of the afternoon searching for two boys, two-year-old Brandon and four-year-old Connor Moore, who were separated from their mother, Glenda Moore, when she tried to escape with them in her car and water submerged them on Father Capodanno Boulevard, about an hour and a half before the water rushed into Carnivale's house. On the morning of Nov. 1, police found the bodies of the boys in a marsh near McLaughlin Street.

Carnivale was like several others among the roughly 75 people who took refuge in Tottenville High School on Tuesday, whose experience during tropical storm Irene led them to ignore evacuation warnings issued by city officials for their areas earlier in the week.

Staten Island borough president James E. Molinaro had foreseen this eventuality on Monday afternoon. After a tour of the island’s storm shelters, he noted that far fewer evacuees were seeking shelter from Hurricane Sandy than they had from Hurricane Irene last summer.

The shelter at the Petrides Center, another one of the boroughs five storm shelters, “had something like 41, 42 people,” Molinaro told the Staten Island Advance. “Last year they had well over 400."

Staten Island Assemblyman Matthew Titone said that while all the infrastructure seemed to be in place that could have been, the campaign to get people to heed evacuation warnings wasn't a success.

"This is the storm of a lifetime, so I don’t think anyone could have been truly prepared for it," he told me on the telephone Tuesday afternoon as he left an emergency meeting at the Staten Island Borough Hall. "But a real lack of preparation took place in the evacuations. It wasn’t until the storm was really going on that people realized: We need to get out of here. And then it was too late. Touring the shelters on Monday, I saw 70 people, 50 people. It wasn’t until late in the evening that I started getting calls from shelters that had an influx of 200 people, with no food to feed them."

He said also that Staten Island residents were altogether unprepared for the specific dangers of a storm surge.

"With Sandy, people were told that there would be more wind surge than we had during Irene," he said. "So people weren’t expecting rain, and didn’t think they’d be flooded. But with the wind surges from the hurricane, we basically had a tsunami on Staten Island."

In interviews with evacuees at Tottenville High, many said they had remained in their homes despite mandatory evacuation warnings partly because the dire predictions for Hurricane Irene had resulted in so little damage to Staten Island, or so they thought. (In fact, Staten Island sustained serious damage during Irene.) Why, they reasoned, would Sandy be any different?

“I realize now that that wasn’t very smart,” said George Rentas, whose wife and two sons, George (18 months) and Max (7 weeks), had to be rescued from their Mayberry Boulevard apartment on Monday night.

And again, comparisons are invidious. While many are focusing on the size and power of Sandy compared to Irene, there are also elements of New York City geology and Sandy's storm path that come in to play, and reasons that lessons from one storm don't always apply to another.

Irene entered the area moving pretty much due north, and put much of New York City to its left, the weakest side of a storm. Sandy took a left turn and made landfall moving pretty much due West; its enormity put the entire New York City shoreline, including the devastated south shore of Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island, and the eastern and southern shores of Staten Island, squarely in the path of its massive surges.

That storm path plays into the the problem of the New York Bight, the geological feature of the east coast that creates a right-angle in the shoreline, with New York Harbor and the Raritan Bay right in the crux. Water rushing in has no outlet but to rise up onto land. And it did, with a speed that many Staten Islanders were describing in the storm's wake.

Rentas had faith in the 15-foot cement wall that separates their apartment from the bay across the street. But around 8 p.m., a giant wave crashed over the wall, sending water gushing through the apartment windows.

“I opened the front door and it was like someone had picked up our house and put in back down on the edge of the ocean,” Rentas said. “Our neighbor’s car floated into our driveway, and it was leaking gas into the water. You could smell it.”

Members of the fire department rescued Rentas and his family around midnight, after mistakenly breaking into the first-floor apartment. By then, Rentas said, the water in the basement had risen to his chest.

"I don't know what we're supposed to do," said Rentas's wife, Donel Franco, who cried softly as she held George on her lap. "I thought the Red Cross was going to come. I think I'm traumatized. We just bought the baby a new crib, all these new toys..."

A motherly volunteer put her hand on Franco's back. "Those are just things," she whispered. "What you have here is what's important. Your babies, your husband."

At Tottenville High, couples with children had been assigned cots in the cafeteria, while other evacuees were placed in the gymnasium. Dozens of volunteers had shown up for the relief effort, distributing bags of bagels, diapers, baby formula. Teachers with vans, navigating streets with non-functioning traffic lights, arrived with donated pizzas and food from neighborhood spots like Top Tomato, Fratelli, Ambrosino’s and Waldbaum’s, all of which had remained open despite the power outages across the borough.

Though many of the evacuees’ homes had been destroyed, some had no home at all.

A 21-year-old man, who gave his name only as Isaac, said he’d been living on the subway since being evicted from his apartment days before. Learning of the subway’s closure and the impending super storm, he’d hitched a ride from the Richmond Valley station to Tottenville High.

“I told myself I’d never stay in a shelter,” he said quietly. “But this is pretty nice. I have a lot of people looking out for me here.”

A few miles east, a group of people had gathered at the southern end of Armstrong Avenue, a residential street in the Eltingville neighborhood, to photograph and gawk at the collection of 20- and 30-foot boats piled up on the grass. The avenue itself was slick with mud and debris, with felled electrical wires running through it like snakes. In someone’s front yard a grey Dodge Durango sat perched atop a brick wall, as if a tornado had dropped it there.

“We’re in Zone A,” said Joe Spadafora, 64, whose front door had been ripped off its hinges by the flood. “By 5 p.m. Monday, there was five feet of water in my house.”

Spadafora made his retreat in a 2008 Mustang to his son’s house on nearby Amboy Road. But when he arrived, the car, still partially inundated with floodwater, shorted out and caught fire in the street.

The house next to Spadafora’s belonged to Yelena Turetskaya, 59 (left). Still stunned by the sight of it, she offered a tour of the house’s mud-soaked interior, at one point stopping to measure her height against the 5-foot-high waterline on the wall.

“All the furniture was upside down,” she said. “Everything is destroyed.”

Before leaving, she pointed at the backyard, where the rising seas had deposited a large shed and a hot tub, among other detritus.

One of the earliest confirmed deaths in Staten Island was that of Angela Rose Dresch, 13, whose house on Yetman Avenue, at the edge of the borough’s South Shore in the Tottenville neighborhood, had been crushed by an enormous wave and then dragged out to sea, leaving only its foundation behind.

Angela’s mother, Patricia, remains in critical condition at Staten Island University Hospital. Her father, George, is still missing. Neighbors said the family stayed behind because their house had been looted when they evacuated during Hurricane Irene, according to the Staten Island Advance.

At 7 p.m. on the night after the storm, the end of Yetman Avenue was blocked off as the search for George Dresch continued. A dinosaur-sized pile of debris lay at the corner of Yetman and Billop Street, illuminated by bright overhead spotlights. A few generators hummed in the distance, and an NBC News truck idled nearby.

“My husband and I left on Sunday,” said Michelle Gagliardi, 42, who was standing on her front lawn and staring in disbelief at where the Dresch’s house used to sit. “I tried all day to call them to make sure they’d left. But I just found out their house was taken away by the ocean."

Politics will inevitably play a part in what follows the devastation in Staten Island, with borough leaders already worrying that the island's decided "fifth-borough" status, and the habitual association of serious storm damage with the Jersey, Queens and Long Island shorelines, will distract attention away from Staten Island.

Indeed, while individual stories from the Island are making their way to the front pages and homepages of local and national papers, wide-ranging coverage of the damage tends to use language like "From the Bronx to Breezy" or in the case of The New Yorker, "The Lower East Side to Brighton Beach."

"I don’t think people realize how bad Staten Island has been hit," Titone told me. "The media is paying more attention to places like Breezy Point, where you’d got dozens of houses up in flames. But Staten Island has been devastated. We had a water tanker wash up on Front Street in my district."

"These are some of the images we hope people see so we’re not left out of the FEMA loop," he said.