Staten Island drenched in heartbreaking loss
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Staten Island towns struggle with heartache and irreplaceable loss.
Tribune Washington bureau
OAKWOOD BEACH, N.Y. — They were found hugging, a former Marine and his blue-eyed son, buried under the wreckage of the home they had hoped to save.
John "Flip" Filipowicz and John Jr., 20, had defied orders to evacuate as Hurricane Sandy approached Monday, determined to pump water out of their basement. But the massive tidal surge and raging floodwaters crushed the foundation, and a wall of concrete collapsed on them.
Police discovered the two the next day, their arms wrapped around each other. They lay amid the wreckage of Oakwood Beach, a working-class neighborhood of firefighters and cops, postal workers and corrections officers, on the southern lip of Staten Island, the always-forgotten New York City borough that suffered the worst in Sandy's terrible maw.
"They were hugging, and it breaks my heart to think that Flip was telling John, 'I can't save you,' " said their neighbor Sue Somma.
Much of the storm-ravaged region, including New York and New Jersey, struggled Thursday to rebound from Sandy, which has killed at least 90 people in the U.S. More than 4.1 million homes and businesses, including about 650,000 in New York City and its northern suburbs, were still without power, and public transit remained a nightmare, although services were slowly coming back.
But the hardest-hit communities, such as Oakwood Beach, tried to cope with heartache and irreplaceable loss.
At least 19 of the city's 40 storm-related deaths were in Staten Island's evacuation zones, close-knit communities such as Oakwood Beach, Midland Beach, South Beach and Tottenville, the same towns that lost so many first responders who rushed to the rescue during the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center across New York Harbor.
The dead included Beatrice Spagnuolo, 80, and Angela Dresch, 13, an eighth-grader who was washed out of her home by a monster wave, her body found a block away.
Also killed was Artur Kasprzak, an off-duty New York police officer, who guided seven members of his family to safety in the attic as the waters rose.
"Officer Kasprzak then turned to one of the women and told her he was going to check the basement but would be right back," the New York Police Department said in a statement. His body was found the next day. Police think he was electrocuted when live wires touched the floodwaters.
On Thursday, police recovered the bodies of two boys: Connor and Brendan Moore, aged 4 and 2. Their mother, Glenda, told police she had tried to escape the storm in her Ford Explorer after losing power at home, but it stalled in a maelstrom, and her sons were ripped from her arms as she tried to escape on foot. She is a nurse, her husband a sanitation worker.
With more than a dozen others still reported missing, police helicopters rattled overhead Thursday searching for bodies and survivors, as rescuers combed through mounds of rubble.
Most of the victims had ignored orders to leave because they couldn't fathom Sandy's size and power, city officials said. Hurricane Irene didn't live up to its ferocious billing last summer, so some apparently tried to ride out Sandy's 90 mph winds by sheltering in their basements.
They were trapped as floodwaters raced in, first knee-deep, then waist-deep, then 10 feet deep in some places. Giant waves knocked homes off their foundations, and sent cars and rooftops floating away.
"No one believed it would be as devastating as it was," said Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, who visited the area Thursday.
On Fox Beach Avenue, a bouquet of flowers lay outside the flood-ravaged home of Leonard Montalto, 53. He drowned in his basement after he went to check his water pump.
Neighbors who searched for Montalto the next day broke the basement windows and peered inside. All they could see was inky water and debris. Divers swam in Wednesday and found the body.
Neighbors said Montalto, a genial U.S. Postal Service worker who delivered the local paper and collected Beanie Babies, had lived in the single-story home since he was a boy. One of his three daughters, Nicole, was with him as the storm approached, but he ordered her to leave in his car shortly after 7 p.m., when the water began to rise.
Later that night, Montalto called his daughter to say it was good she got out. It was the last anyone heard from him.
The sorrow was leavened by tales of survival. Frank Langello rushed up to his attic as the water rose. He carried a cat and four dogs, including a 110-pound Weimaraner. Langello had an inflatable raft but realized it wouldn't survive the rushing water, especially with nervous animals. So he sat for hours with Doritos and bottles of water and waited.
Well after midnight, a neighbor paddled over in a metal fishing boat he had found floating nearby. Leaving the cat, Langello jumped in with the dogs. Neighbors who had been trapped in other homes climbed in as well, and they rowed to higher ground in the rain and wind.
Langello returned the next day to find the cat unscathed.
Filipowicz, 51, a former corrections officer, had sent his wife, daughter and another son — John Jr.'s twin — to relatives. Somma, the neighbor, described the former Marine as "a survivor" who probably planned to drink a few beers with John Jr. while the hurricane raged outside.
The next day, Somma said, she and her husband saw a 20-foot-wide hole where the concrete foundation had caved into the basement.