Four Said to Die in Freezing Rockaway Building
By Jen Benepe. Minda Aguhob and Tony Moy also reported for this story.
711 SEAGIRT LEFT UNTENDED, 4 RESIDENTS SAID TO HAVE DIED
CYCLIST GROUPS HELP RECOVERY FOR RESIDENTS WITHOUT HEAT, ELECTRICITY, WATER FOR 10 DAYS
Misery is rising in a large building in the Far Rockaways, and many residents are either unaccounted for, or not responding to visits to their doors.
Unofficial reports by neighbors said that four residents in the 900-unit building have died since Hurricane Sandy, including a couple who expired from carbon monoxide poisoning after using their oven to stay warm. All of the deaths occurred in the first week after the storm.
The building and its residents have been plunged into darkness since the catastrophic storm touched the shoreline more than 10 days ago, and none of them have had electricity, running water, or heat since then, meaning many of the residents who are elderly have been and continue to be subject to real danger.
Yesterday, Thursday, the Red Cross had deposited some food donations in the lobby, but so far, 10 days after the building was plunged into cold darkness, no government or large care agency had visited residents apartments to see if they were even still alive.
The dire straits of the building occupants and the fear that more will die behind closed doors in its 25 floors, came to light as a cycling-related advocacy group spent its 10th day in the Rockaways reaching out to residents affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Though the deaths could not be confirmed by Ellen Barakove, the city’s Medical Examiner, resident Lisa Roberts said she saw one person being taken out in a covered stretcher, and knew of the other three through building maintenance workers. Another resident, Mariana Beeghly, confirmed the deaths.
The complex is literally several hundred feet from the Long Island border, and ambulances could have gone there, but a man who answered the phone at the Nassau County medical examiner’s office refused to provide any information or his name to CI. According to Baracove, Nassau County has no law requiring public reporting of deaths.
Building facility personnel denied that anyone had died in the building and said all had been accounted for.
Barakove did however confirm the death of William McKeon, 78, who suffered blunt trauma to the head when
he plunged down the unlighted stairway at 106-20 Shorefront Parkway, in a different section of the Rockaways.
Several elderly residents in the building depend on oxygen tanks to stay alive, and with no communication with the upper floors of the building for the first 8 days or so, the possibility of people dying was magnified.
The lobby at 711 Seagirt was a scene of constant ebb and flow of residents, care workers, and on Friday, the National Guard and EMT personnel, making it hard to discern how the building management would know whom in the building could not be accounted for.
As temperatures dipped down into the 30′s since Wednesday, hypothermia and lack of food and water could easily have been reasons for anyone to die, as well as lack of access to medical care, communications, and prescription drugs.
Just about everyone’s cell phone went dead days ago, and no one has been by to help them charge it –except for one van for an hour, said a resident.
And though most of the people we spoke to acknowledged that they had been asked to evacuate by the city, or knew of existing shelters miles away, each one had a reason not to leave their apartments. For one, shelters in Queens are situated about 8 miles from the complex.
Approximately 35 to 50 percent of the residents are elderly, infirm or disabled, and even if they had cell or telephone power, it is unlikely they could ring the Mayor’s office to ask for help: Perhaps as many do not even speak English, with Russian and Spanish being the primary cultural origins of the seniors.
Though the city has language options on its 311 line, none of the homebound residents had cell phones after 24 hours, and calls to have endless announcements before connecting to a live person, resulting in an approximate 10 minute wait. Interviews with some of the elderly in the building revealed that fear and different cultural norms prevented them from moving to shelters.
On Friday morning Minda Aguhob, a member of a spontaneous advocacy group created by cyclist Ray Alba, the Hurricane Sandy Relief Volunteer Group, tweeted Mayor Michael Bloomberg with a simple message, ”the situation at 711 Seagirt is dire.”
Members of the group organized since last Tuesday to come to the far end of Queens to help out with the recovery, which eventually led to their discovery that the building’s residents had been largely ignored by the agencies flooding the Rockaways since Hurricane Sandy.
Another clue was a guerilla video made by another recovery group called Bravo of their door-to-door canvassing efforts on the north side. That video has since been removed from public view on the Internet.
On Thursday afternoon, Michael DellaVecchia, leader of yet another recovery team, the Far Rockaway Emergency Workers, had seen the
guerilla video and jumped into his car with Dmitry Belov, a friend who speaks Russian, and headed to New York to help.
That night armed with flashlights in the pitch black, they went door-to-door at 711 Seagirt offering food and water, and found that many of the people had not been visited by any caretakers, and were freezing in their apartments.
DellaVecchia walked up and down more than 20 flights of stairs with supplies, over and over again until he had reached all he could, but he said many residents had either left, or were not answering. With a Russian interpreter they shouted, “Food and water, grandpa and grandma.”
After DellaVecchia returned to Philadelphia, today Aguhob and Tony Moy traveled with this journalist to learn how many people may have been affected at 711 Seagirt and a nearby building 261 13 Beach. Their concern–fatalities, and near death existences behind closed doors.
Conditions at the building have gone from bad to worse since power was lost. Water for flushing toilets and doing dishes can only be fetched by walking several blocks south of the building to an emergency water dispensary, said Doreen Cannon, 42, who had two teenaged children to worry about.
Most of the residents were walking up to 25 flights to take water to their apartments. Bottled water for drinking had been dropped off by community groups, but was locked in a side room even though it should have been there for tenants to use at any time, said several residents.
Six bottles were to be rationed per day per apartment said Bernard Crayton and Femi Johnson, maintenance workers, who defended management’s policy should the electrical problems persist through Thanksgiving, more than two weeks from now. “What would happen if we run out of water by then?” he asked.
But some estimates put the resumption of energy more than 6 weeks away , closer to the middle of December.
Today was also the first day that the building received help from large government agencies, when a Bronx-based unit of the National Guard descended on the building, going door-to-door looking for distressed residents.
Most of the recovery aid had been rushed to the other end of the peninsula after a devastating fire totaled 80 homes in the Breezy Point section, and Sandy ripped up homes and destroyed boardwalks.
That’s the location that Governor Andrew Cuomo toured, along with Mayor Bloomberg who compared the scene to an apocalyptic post-World War II.
Emergency vehicles were parked outside 711 Seagirt today, but indoors it was the grass roots organizers like Sydney Lombardi of the Jewish Association of the Aged that were feeding the residents with warm spaghetti being dished out from aluminum trays.
Lombardi told CI that they have been helping the residents since last Wednesday, over 7 days, a fact confirmed by tenants.
Another local community group, Kings Bay Y, who came to the building after the guerrilla video made the rounds, was dishing out food, and doing reconnaissance work throughout the building.
Inside the building lobby residents wrapped in layers of coats socialized and waited for food, water, batteries and other supplies. Some were just enjoying milling about in the action rather than freezing in their apartments upstairs.
We followed some of the volunteers up into the “D” building as they went to check on residents and deliver sandwiches. Among them were three people representing Christian organizations from as far away as Margate, FL., a ministry in Patchogue, LI., and a children’s organization in the New York area.
Four people who represented the Kings Bay Y were banging on doors and calling out in Russian and English. The building had been converted from a senior center to a Mitchell Lama building, then was bought out some years ago by the current owners Sarasota & Gold LLC. Many of the older residents harked back to the time when the building housed seniors only.
On several of the walls and stairways someone had spray painted their unquotable opinion of the owners and of FEMA.
We also followed a group of FEMA and National Guard. One FEMA worker who had traveled from Indianapolis, IN, said they had only received a 20 percent response rate as they made their way up through the building. Doors with no response were marked with a “no response,” tape, and those with people answering had a cross marked with tape.
A bad smell—of something rotting permeated the hallway of the 10th Floor. “We can tell when it’s a rotting body,” said a National Guard, “and that’s not it.”
But neither FEMA nor National Guard are allowed to break down a door when the tenant does not answer. If they are dying inside and unable to answer? “There is nothing we can do,” said the FEMA worker.
Only Fire and Police Department officials can enter private apartments, but the existence of a real emergency has to be established.
Michael Richards, 53, who answered his door on the 11th floor said he was afraid to leave his apartment because he feared he would be robbed. He said for medical reasons he was unable to walk up and down the stairs, and had run out of his pain medication.
On the 13th floor, neighbors Ron Griffith, 74, and Maria Burgos, 85 said they would never go to a shelter. “I have never been to one, so I am not going to go now,” said Griffith. Neither have been able to make the descent to the lobby for physical reasons.
When Jessica Gambetta, Joey Curcio, and Kristina Foster learned the two friends had no food, they came around the corner of the hallway and passed out their last sandwiches.
“God bless,” said Curcio who works for the Abundant Life Christian Center.
Back downstairs, resident Doreen Cannon had made a large pot of Jamaican-style chicken soup that she had brought down from the third floor, and she offered it to the room of FEMA and National Guard workers, most of them handsome men in their 20′s.
Her daughter Serena Lockiby, a tall 13-year-old, said it was so cold at night getting into bed was “like lying between two sheets of ice.” During the day she said, “You have to put
on layers and layers and layers,” to stay warm.
Her brother Dylan Woodhouse, 14, was selected as the family member to go fetch water down the block each day, but Serena had to do the cooking and wash the dishes.
“We cook in the dark with flashlights,” said her mother with a smile. as she handed another cup of soup to a soldier dressed in grey camouflage fatigues and big army boots.
Meanwhile, in the main corridor of the building, an organizer from Kings Bay Y was calling out apartment numbers to pass out batteries and other essential supplies. Only about 20 of the building’s 900 residents were there to receive them.
Besides the lack of water and the extreme cold, the worst problem for residents they said was being cut off from the outside world. All have lost phone cell use, and the big charging centers being announced with fanfare by the Chairman of AT&T at one of the Mayor’s press conferences have not materialized here.
“We need them to come here for two or three hours at 10 in the morning,” said Judith Branch whose daughter Tiffany joked around with her friend Ashanti Johnson.
“Do you have heat?” said Tiffany to the reporter. “Yes,” was the answer. “Can I come home with you?” she asked. Hooking my arm with hers like Judy Garland about to head out on the Yellow Brick Road she said, “Let’s go.”
DOWN THE BLOCK–MORE MISERY AND BUREAUCRACY
We got back in the car, and headed off to 261 13 Beach, and as we arrived found the owner Paul Alizio trying to convince FEMA workers not to remove the building’s only source of heat and electricity, a FEMA generator that had been providing power to the 344-unit building.
Alizio manages six buildings in the area, and has only been able to obtain private generators for two buildings he said. ” I am trying to take care
of 900 families,” said Alizio, as workers wrapped up the wiring that once connected the generator to the side of the building.
‘This is a matter of humanity, not bureaucracy,” the reporter said to the workers, crossing the line between reporting and becoming involved. ‘We’re just grunts,” replied the workers.
In the ensuing half hour, calls were made to 911 who referred the caller to 311, followed by 10 minutes of endless announcements about gas rationing and alternate side parking, as residents looked on, and wondered aloud about being cold that night.
The reporter finally got through to the media group of the Mayor’s Office, and was told to “write an email.” She wrote an email–no answer. Finally after getting through to 311, the man on the other end asked if there was an emergency. If not “there is nothing I can do but switch you to FEMA.”
After holding on for FEMA for 15 minutes, the phone went dead: they had hung up. The FEMA men were taking the generator. No one was helping. As it grew darker and colder, one resident was wheeled out of the building by New York Fire Department emergency workers. Soon, all of the residents sitting outside headed back into the building. “Good night,” they said as they went into the dark lobby.
As we made our way home, we traveled towards the end of the peninsula that has received so much media and political attention.
Blocks and blocks went by of tall buildings, looking dark and cold, with no indication of how the lives behind the windows were doing. The city-owned NYCHA buildings had lights. Most other buildings did not. Were they all in the same predicament as 711 Seagirt?
Once we arrived at the main beach front we saw a street filled with sand, lit by floodlights. An American flag fluttered in the closing darkness where the beach used to be. Above, and far onto the water’s horizon, a lone star showed her bright light. In front of a dark building, a woman called her friend and tried to find her. A cop car passed.
A pile of debris heaped on the corner gave no hint of what the original structure used to be.