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Queens Chronicle

Howard Beach men rescued neighbor from Hurricane Sandy's storm surge

Four Howard Beach men saved resident stuck in flooding basement

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Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012 10:30 am | Updated: 5:16 am, Wed Dec 24, 2014.

Kenneth Cioffi didn’t think Hurricane Sandy would be as bad as it was. He definitely didn’t think the storm would lead hom to fight for his and his neighbors’ lives.

As he finished his dinner on the night of Oct. 29, the lights in his home on 86th Street were still on even while the winds were howling.

He didn’t know then that the next few hours would take a dramatic, almost deadly, turn for himself, his son and three of his neighbors.

The high drama began as the waters of Jamaica Bay began flooding their block around 8 p.m. the night of the hurricane. Cioffi’s son, Michael, was looking out of their second-floor living room window when he noticed the water beginning to rise.

“He called to me, ‘Dad, Dad, look at this,’” Kenny Cioffi said. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought the storm had been too hyped up.”

In an effort to save their cars, Kenny and Michael went outside to move their vehicles into their driveway and walkway, which is a foot or so higher than the street. The waters rose fast and as they moved the cars, a tree fell on their block, taking out power lines and leaving 86th Street in the dark.

That’s when Michael, who is in school to be a police officer — a step toward his goal of working for the Drug Enforcement Agency — heard screaming up the block.

Wading through the water, Michael headed toward the house on the corner of 159th Avenue and 86th Street, where he heard the screaming. Kenny, concerned that his son would get washed away in the flood, followed him, using only his cellphone backlight to see in front of him.

“I called out to him,” Kenny said. “It was scary.”

Kenny and Michael were met by two other neighbors, Dan Ticali and Phil Kelly, and the four of them went into the home, following the pleas for help.

The screams were coming from the basement of the home which was quickly filling up with water. Trapped in the basement was a man they could identify only as “Joe,” who works at Lenny’s Pizza on Cross Bay Boulevard.

With the floodwaters obscuring the door to the basement, they, along with a fifth neighbor, Eddie Anzalone, had to find another way to get him out. Anzalone's father, John, said his son called for help while the water was rising and that was how Michael Cioffi found out about the trapped man. 

Though the house was only about 100 yards from Cioffi’s house, he and his son were out of view of Kenny’s wife and Michael’s mother, Annette, who nervously waited in front of their home, concerned about what was happening.

Meanwhile, in the corner house, the four neighbors decided the only way they could save the man was to break through the first floor into the basement.

So they did — using an ax, hacksaws, sledgehammers, crowbars, whatever they could find, they busted through a bathroom floor to get him out. Noticing that Joe was almost out of room to breathe, they ran a hose to supply air to him as they broke the floor open, smashing through tile, Sheetrock and beams.

“He kept saying ‘I don’t want to die. Don’t let me die,’” Kenny Cioffi said. “I wasn’t going to let him die.”

The man, panicked and desperate to escape the rising water in his basement, injured his head trying to squeeze through the hole in the floor before it was wide enough to pull him out. He cut his head on wire mesh in the floor, leaving the four rescuers covered in blood.

Finally, using a car jack to open the floor wide enough, they pulled him out only to find him hypothermic. Joe asked his rescuers to administer his nitroglycerin pills to keep him from suffering a heart attack.

But another obstacle remained: How to get Joe to a hospital at the height of the hurricane.

Ticali, who is a cop, managed to drive his truck through the floodwaters to Cross Bay Boulevard; where he found Deputy Inspector Thomas Pascale, the commanding officer of the 106th Precinct. Eventually, the man was evacuated and taken to a hospital, where he is recovering.

For the Cioffis, who finally made it back home, cold and wet, at almost midnight, the experience was even more frightening in hindsight, and began a long, emotionally draining recovery for themselves. Kenny Cioffi lost his father two days after the storm, and his family, like his neighbors, went without power or heat for most of the last month.

Kenny said he did not even consider the possibility that the floodwater could have been electrified due to the fallen wires, which could have been fatal.

“When someone calls for help, you just go into that mode,” he said. “I couldn’t have slept if I hadn’t helped.”

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