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Lives forever changed in wake of Sandy's wrath

Updated 2:02 am, Sunday, November 11, 2012

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  • Lt. John Chimblo of the Greenwich Fire Department stands among the ruins of the incinerated watefront mansion at 45 Binney Lane in Old Greenwich, Thursday afternoon, November 8, 2012. Chimblo and four other Greenwich firefighters were the first to arrive on the scene of the fire during the height of Hurricane Sandy. Two other homes on the surrounding property caught fire from the hurricane winds and burned to the ground. Photo: Bob Luckey / Greenwich Time

    Lt. John Chimblo of the Greenwich Fire Department stands among the ruins of the incinerated watefront mansion at 45 Binney Lane in Old Greenwich, Thursday afternoon, November 8, 2012. Chimblo and four other Greenwich firefighters were the first to arrive on the scene of the fire during the height of Hurricane Sandy. Two other homes on the surrounding property caught fire from the hurricane winds and burned to the ground.

    Photo: Bob Luckey

 

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As Hurricane Sandy spun north of the Bahamas, Ed Colacurcio got ready to bail out the basement should Bud's Deli, just a half-mile from the beach in Fairfield, end up flooding for the first time in the 31 years he's owned it. In Greenwich, Fire Lt. John Chimblo figured he'd make some overtime securing his town against the elements. And in Bridgeport, Red Cross shelter manager Mark Rozelle scrambled to coordinate emergency housing for storm victims. But none of the three had any idea what was about to hit, or how profoundly it would change their lives. 

BUD'S DELI: OPEN FOR BUSINESS

When Ed Colacurcio, 51, woke up Monday morning, he boarded his windows and opened the deli he'd started three decades ago, named after his father.

Since the recession hit, the Fairfield native hadn't taken a vacation in years. He worked almost every day, rising at 5, often not locking his door until dinner.

Monday morning, he bubbled his coffee machine to life, cracked eggs and sizzled sausage in his frying pan. Soon his customers were streaming in, familiar faces in DPW and private-contractor garb, looking for food and storm talk.

Already, the wind was whistling, coming inside to rustle the newspapers stacked before his counter. "No relief from misery in sight until Wednesday," the New York Post said.

He hoped not.

The deli, he thought, was pretty safe. It was his basement that worried him. He had two full refrigerators down there, tall shelves of soft drinks and cartons of food -- thousands of dollars of uninsured goods.

Long ago, he'd learned that his basement had flooded only twice: In the monster storms of 1938 and 1955.

Now, a customer leaned out the door and gazed the half-mile down Reef Road to the beach.

"Wait for midnight. That's when the bad stuff comes."

Hurricane Sandy was coming.

Colacurcio was going nowhere.

GREENWICH FIRE: GEARING UP

The Greenwich fire department was beefing its staff in anticipation of the storm.

For Lt. John Chimblo, 49, who'd already worked Sunday, that meant the chance for overtime. A Greenwich native who still lived in town, he'd joined the department in 1988.

Four weeks earlier, he'd forced his way into a burning home and carried out an elderly woman, saving her life.

Now, he sensed the tension building at the Sound Beach Avenue fire house in Old Greenwich. They had an extra fire truck and eight extra firefighters. They consulted flood maps, checked oxygen tanks, readied the rescue boat.

Then the sky darkened and the wind roared louder still.

Then, suddenly, the sirens blared about 7 p.m.

SHELTER: SMOOTH START

In the days before Sandy, Mark Rozelle, 52, had a couple of problems.

One was manpower. As manager of the Red Cross emergency shelters for most of Fairfield County, he's rarely convinced he has enough volunteers. This time was no exception.

He also wondered how his wife Susan and teenage son Blake would handle the storm back home in Easton.

By Monday afternoon, things were going smoothly. They filled the Cesar Batalla shelter in Bridgeport with 340 people and successfully sent newer arrivals to other shelters.

As night fell, Rozelle and his boss met at Red Cross headquarters in Bridgeport for a conference call.

"Listen, we still have power," his boss said. "But if we lose it, you have to call ..."

The power died.

6:10 P.M.

Sustained winds of 48.3 mph, gusting to 72.5 mph.

BUD'S DELI: SANDY'S HERE

Colacurcio had closed up his deli, sat down in his apartment for dinner, looked out his window and saw a scene that chilled him to the bone.

Out back, two giant trees had fallen almost silently in the howling wind - but one landed squarely on his shed.

That's where he had gasoline for his generator and the water pump he'd hoped he wouldn't need.

It was dark now. A third tree swayed menacingly.

Ed convinced his old friend, who'd agreed to ride out the storm with him, to help him pry open the shed. They rescued the gas and pump.

Then curiosity struck. With high tide three hours away, they wondered if the Sound had breached the sand dunes a half-mile down the road.

Carefully, they walked down Reef Road.

They made it only a block.

GREENWICH FIRE: FLAMES

As the ranking officer on Engine 5, Chimblo rode in the passenger seat as they sped south on Sound Beach Avenue. They dodged a couple of downed trees, veering clear of an unhinged streetlight that swung from a telephone pole.

Chimblo radioed for details. The homeowner had called in the fire, he learned. All three family members had escaped.

A mile later, the truck swung onto Binney Lane, a narrow, speed-bumped alley with thick hedges shielding big homes. Up ahead, where the backyards spill out into Long Island Sound, Chimblo could see flames licking the first and second stories of the Victorian.

The winds were howling, bending trees and tossing embers as big as charcoal clear across the street. High tide was hours away, but Long Island Sound was slamming the foot of the backyard, spraying plumes of seawater.

If a back window blew out, the force of wind could turn the home into a veritable blowtorch, incinerating everything in its path toward the street.

But firefighters are taught to always assume someone's still inside.

Chimblo affixed his facemask, knelt down and crawled into the smoke-filled house.

His chief was out back, feeling the gusts and worrying about the windows.

He grabbed his radio.

"Get out!" he ordered.

SHELTER: STRANDED

Rozelle and his family have a system.

Before the storm, he gases up the cars, fills the bathtubs and stocks their home with food. Then he packs his bag, throws it in his pickup truck, and leaves -- expecting to not see them or the house for at least a week.

When the power cut at Red Cross headquarters, Rozelle felt a pinch of nerves. He had a window of time before he was needed at the shelters, so he thought he'd take a chance: He would check on his family.

He steered his car north into the Easton woods, following his usual route. Blocked by a downed tree, he retreated and tried another path. Blocked again, he tried a third. He cycled through back roads for maybe an hour.

Finally, he realized he wouldn't make it home.

Moments earlier, across town, a crashing tree killed an Easton firefighter.

10:06 P.M.

Storm surges reach 13.26 feet.

BUD'S DELI: THE FIGHT

The water came up Reef Road fast, sluicing up Colacurcio's driveway like a wild brook.

Before long, his backyard was knee-deep. He and his friend held a wooden slab at the basement door, hoping to fend off the water. Colacurcio could feel the pressure building; he could see the water rising. He knew he had to retreat.

It took them both to shut the door. With water cascading at his thighs, he clutched the banister and descended the six narrow stairs into his near-black basement. His refrigerators were floating. His supplies were getting lifted from shelves.

Wading through the waste-deep water -- he'd shut off all electricity -- Colacurcio climbed up the interior stairs to his kitchen. He threw down a hose and fired up his pump.

Then he started worrying about his deli. He wet a towel, laid it along the crease of the front doorway. He watched the water rise ever closer to the top of his three stairs.

Within inches of his deli, the water stopped.

GREENWICH FIRE: RETREAT

Back outside of the burning home, Chimblo headed to the backyard.

The firefighters had hooked up a hose to a nearby hydrant, but the hydrant was barely drawing water. With the tide rising, and the street beginning to flood, town officials feared the storm surge could swamp the fire trucks -- or even pull the crew out to sea.

They ordered a retreat.

But that wasn't easy. Trees had been falling, pinning them on the increasingly claustrophobic Binney Lane. In spots, wires were down. And neighbors had been coming outside, asking for help evacuating.

As one fire truck backed up, a tree landed across its front.

Flying embers set a second home on fire, across the street. Then a third.

SHELTER: A LIFEBOAT

By the time Sandy slowed about midnight, there were some 1,300 people in the Red Cross shelters, 700 alone in Bridgeport.

Shelter-life was taking hold, Rozelle knew. People arrive frustrated, scared or angry, and he's learned to not take it personally.

"This is a lifeboat," he likes to say. "Not a cruise ship."

Eventually, something happens. Strangers hear each other's stories. Communities take shape. At Batalla, adults would host a Halloween trick-or-treat, offering candy to kids without costumes willing to tell a joke.

As the winds softened, Rozelle made his way back to Red Cross headquarters, hoping for sleep. He set up a cot in his office, and then his cell phone rang.

There was an emergency evacuation in Stamford. New people were about to check into the shelter.

He wouldn't get back to Bridgeport for hours.

2 A.M.

Winds decrease, storm surge recedes

GREENWICH FIRE: NEW DAY

Chimblo got back to the firehouse well after midnight, replaced by a new crew that would monitor the situation until daybreak.

He got a few hours of rest, then returned to Binney Lane, where the rubble of three lost houses smoldered. In the early morning light, he got a chance to take in the destruction.

For days, he replayed the scene, wondering if he could have done anything to save the homes.

"Too much wind," he concludes. "Too much fire, too much water coming up."

With a calmer sea at his back, calmer winds blowing overhead, he looked across the street at the remaining houses.

Above the rooftops, he saw a rainbow.

SHELTER: SACRIFICE

For the next week, Rozelle never got a night with more than three hours of sleep. He spent two of them in his pickup.

On Wednesday, he finally got home to Easton. His house was fine, but he learned about Russell F. Neary, the 55-year-old firefighter killed in the storm.

In the predawn cool of Saturday, he took the Red Cross van to Dunkin Donuts. With fellow volunteers, he filled about 10 containers with coffee. Then he got snacks and set up a stand at Notre Dame Catholic Church.

Firefighters arrived from as far away as Canada, standing at attention as a procession of fire trucks and ambulances made its way to the church.

"That's when I realized that this sheltering thing has been really tough," he says. "But now we're working for someone who gave his life."

He pauses.

"I just gave a few hours, a week. But this guy gave his life."

BUD'S DELI: REBUILD

Colacurcio spent three days pumping out his basement.

On Thursday, he trudged case after case of soft drinks from his mud-slick basement to a backyard Dumpster.

Something smelled rotten. He found a head of cabbage stashed in a cardboard box.

When a health inspector arrived, he looked around and said: "Guess I won't be seeing you for a while."

"I'm hoping to be ready for you guys this weekend," Colacurcio answered.

Last weekend, he cleaned and sanitized the basement. He got his power back Monday, his new refrigerators Monday night. He ordered new food and drinks Tuesday. The Boars' Head guy came Thursday morning.

Outside, the full brunt of Sandy's destruction was visible everywhere. Several beach cottages had been flattened. Ruined possessions lined the sidewalks: big-screen TVs, couches, coffee tables, artwork.

But on the glass door of Bud's Deli hung a sign:

"We will be re-opening this Saturday. Sorry for the delay."