During Hurricane Sandy, Neighbors Save Neighbors on McLaughlin Street
The Galatis are a tight-knit Italian family. They live at 51 Agnes Place, at the bottom of McLaughlin Street, right across from the lagoon. Sal works for the MTA, and Toniann is a clothing designer who has worked for Kleinfeld Bridal for years.
They have two daughters: Toniann, or "Toni Girl" as her family calls her, is named after her mother. She's 24 and works at the beauty salon down the street. Nicole, her 19-year-old sister, goes to Brooklyn Community College. They usually live at home with Toniann, Sal, and Toniann's mother, Pat.
As Ben was getting ready for bed that night, down the street at the Galati's, Toniann's voice was hoarse from screaming so much. Only 20 minutes earlier she was downstairs when she heard loud booms. She watched as her wood floors filled with water, made a huge bubble, and then burst. There was a loud boom as the water rushed in. Picture frames dropped to the floor. Her refrigerator fell on the ground like a dollhouse toy. She watched in horror as a kitchen chair flew outside the patio door.
Only four days earlier, Toniann had gone through surgery to remove tumors in her ovaries. She had a C-section, and the doctors cautioned that her stomach shouldn't get wet. She had to cover her cancer wounds. She found ShopRite bags and wrapped them tightly around her stomach.
She grabbed her kittens, her dog, Bear, and her 70-year-old mother, Pat, and raced up the stairs to her second story. Once there, Toniann barely had time to catch her breath before the lights went out. She made sure her husband, Sal, made it up. He did.
"I was in pitch darkness," Toniann says. "The first thing I thought was, 'Thank God my girls aren't here.'"
A few hours before the surge hit, the girls had left the house by foot to search for help. When they saw their street submerged in water, they panicked. They went 18 blocks around their house to firehouses and hospitals and asked people to help their family. Toni Girl broke down at a firehouse. She got on her hands and knees, cried hysterically, and, finally, a fireman got in a rescue boat to help.
Renée Jacques Toniann and Ben hug after seeing each other for the first time since he saved her.
He made it to the middle of McLaughlin Street, only a half a block from the Galatis' house, turned around, and came back with the neighborhood drunk.
When she saw whom he brought back, Toni Girl went nuts.
She said, "My mother just got over cancer, and you left her there?"
The fireman had nothing to say.
Toni Girl saw a call coming in from her mother. She answered, and Toniann was crying on the other end.
"I called my kids, and the first thing I said was 'I love you both and don't quit school,'" says Toniann. "That's what I said to both of them. 'Promise me you'll finish school.' And that was the last time I got to talk to them."
That's when the girls -- who were freaking out at the top of McLaughlin near the fire trucks -- saw Adam running back and forth from his apartment to his car. Toni Girl and Nicole begged him for help.
"Adam knew I used to be a lifeguard," Ben says. "He thought I would be the best person to help them rescue their family. Dominick also wanted to help, so we both went downstairs and offered to swim the girls down to their house."
Ben and Dominick each grabbed a daughter and made the descent into the river McLaughlin Street had turned into. They tried to stay afloat. Ben was stepping over cars and fences. All sorts of debris were acting as his ground. Strewn furniture bobbed around. Later on, Ben would find out that a newborn baby drowned on the street.
"The thought of that little body brushing up against me gives me the creeps," Ben says later, upon reflection.
Meanwhile, Toniann was on the second floor of her flooded house, frantically trying to call everyone and anyone she knew for help. She tried the police, but their phone line was down. She called all her relatives in the Bronx, realizing this might be the last time she spoke to them.
"I fell apart," says Toniann. "I cried, and I said, 'I am going to die.' It was like that scene in Titanic where everything's filling up, and you're at that last little peak of the attic, and there's that last bit of air. That's what it felt like. Because we just saw it go up and up and up and up."
All of a sudden, she heard her daughters' voices. They were coming from the neighbor's window across the backyard. Toni Girl and Nicole had returned. Toni Girl yelled, "I would rather die with you than live without you."
"Now these two kids are normally very spoiled, so I never expected to hear that," says Toniann.
Ben and Dominick were wading in the water below the girls as they tried to figure out the next steps in the rescue mission. Toni Girl and Nicole were both in the neighbor's upstairs' room as the neighbor, her seamstress for years, started throwing jackets and blankets on the shivering girls.
Toniann got herself together and begged Ben and Dominick to take the girls back without them.
"They had to be saved first," she said.
The water kept rising. Ben and Dominick reached up to the girls in the neighbors' window. The girls resisted. Toni Girl was scared to go back into the water. She was born with her heart on the opposite side and only has one lung, placed in the center of her chest, which causes her spine to form a contorted S shape. She never learned how to swim.
"I don't want to do it, I don't want to do it, I don't want to do it," Nicole pleaded. "I can't swim."
"I will catch you," Ben said. "You don't have to do any swimming."
The neighbor dropped her into Ben's arms. Vines and debris were wrapped and attaching themselves to them. He safely swam her to the front of the street. Dominick swam Toni Girl there as well.
When he came back for the second time, Toniann thought Ben was a fireman. She urged him to take Sal next.
She looked at Sal as he left and remembered the first time they met. She was 11, skinny, and flat as a board. She snuck off the block because her parents were strict and wouldn't let her see boys. She looked at him, and he looked at her, and they fell in love that instant.
"I knew he would come back for me," Toniann said. "Even if he had to steal a canoe, he wouldn't leave me."
Now Sal was gone, and she was left with her mother and her kittens in her flooded house. She hoped and prayed that Ben and Dominick would return. And they did. Toniann and Pat couldn't climb out of the top window because of Toniann's stomach. They would have to leave through the downstairs front door.
Toniann grabbed the kittens, her mother, and a backpack full of her medical supplies and her mother's bipolar medicine. They started walking down the stairs, but before long, they were walking straight into sludgy black water. She was treading over her couch when she finally found the handle to the front door. She pushed it open through the water. Nicole's Air Jordans floated out the door. Her eyes frantically searched for Ben.
Toniann saw Ben. He looked completely frozen. He must have swam back and forth about 10 times.
"He was completely blue and shivering," Toniann says. "I could see big fat goosebumps all over his whole body."
Dominick took the kittens and put the crate on top of a loose chain-link fence. He paddled the crate and Pat to the top of the street.
Toniann latched on to Ben.
"I'm scared," Toniann said. "I just had tumors removed."
"I will get you out of here," Ben said.
She was bundled in his arms, like a child, holding on tight to his shoulders. "I was holding onto his neck so tight, I think I cut off his circulation," Toniann says. "I just kept kissing his neck. He saved my life."
Finally, her family was safe. They would end up staying at Sal's father's house in Duncan Hills for the night. They would spend the rest of the night crying and hugging one another.
But before they left, Toniann looked at Ben and Dominick and said, "As soon as all of this is over, I'm going to cook you guys a big Italian dinner."
As for Ben, his foot was hurting really bad. He looked down at it and saw that he had gashed it horribly on a chain-link fence while he was saving the Galatis. He had to limp a mile and a half to the hospital that night to get it treated and get a tetanus shot. Sleeping off the cold and pain, he spent the night in the hospital.
The next day, he went back to the apartment, and no one was there. To this day, he doesn't know where Dominick went. He found out that Adam left in his car with Jordan to go to another person's house in Staten Island.
Renée Jacques Ben Brown sitting on the stoop of his apartment.
Ben spent the next four days in a timeless coma of existence, staying in the apartment of the woman who lived across the hall. All they did was drink alcohol, sleep, and take walks around the town, searching for any sign of civilization. Sandy Beach turned into a void. Ben was stuck in a waiting game, living off of a bag of potato chips and dirty tap water.
On Thursday, November 1, he saw a bus coming down the street. It looked like a mirage, but it was real. Ben got on the bus with nothing but a dead cell phone. He sat down, closed his eyes, and didn't look back as the driver took him into the city.
The next month would prove to be a challenging one for Ben. He spent the rest of his semester essentially homeless, moving back and forth between generous classmates' homes and NYU dorms. He would count the days until he could head back home to California for the holidays.