The Bay came first. At around 6 p.m. on Monday, October 29, Kelly-Ann McMullan Preiss and her husband, Chuck, were having dinner with their three young children when Kelly-Ann looked out the window and saw water from Jamaica Bay flowing down her street. The Preisses live on Beach 131st Street, in the Belle Harbor section of the Rockaways, the narrow, working-class peninsula in Queens that separates the Atlantic Ocean from New York City. The couple had decided to stay in their house, a two-story wooden home built by Kelly Ann’s great-great grandfather in 1925, rather than evacuate during Hurricane Sandy.
Kelly-Ann was accustomed to disruption. In 2001, American Airlines flight 587 crash-landed on her block, killing 260 people aboard the plane and five on the ground and coming to a stop only five houses away from hers. At the time, she was six months pregnant with her first child, Daniel, a son from a previous relationship. Last fall, two years after they got married, the Preisses evacuated as state officials made grave warnings about Hurricane Irene, but the water levels were low and left the neighborhood largely unaffected. Looters were less forgiving, though, so this fall, as state officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for Sandy, Chuck, a 38-year-old fire-safety inspector for a Manhattan real estate company, did what most of his neighbors did: he stayed home. Kelly-Ann cooked chicken cutlets and pasta, they ate as a family, and then they settled in to watch television and ride out the storm.
Soon the rising bay met the rising ocean on the street in front of the house, and Chuck went downstairs to see if the basement was flooding. It was. One window broke, then another, and the water rushed in, three feet and rising in a matter of seconds, chasing him upstairs. He and Kelly-Ann grabbed their children, Daniel, 10, Brooke, 3, and Ashley, 2, and waded into the waist-deep seawater. They headed to the house of their next-door neighbor, Ed Weigert, a former Marine—the more hands around with the kids the better, Chuck figured. Soon after putting the kids to sleep, Chuck looked out the window and saw flames: the home three houses down the block was on fire. Weigert rushed out into the water and woke the sleeping residents, then helped them evacuate to another neighbor’s house.
Before long high winds started whipping embers the size of cantaloupes up the block and into Weigert’s house. They sounded, in Chuck’s words, “like hand grenades.” The water from Sandy came in the form of a tidal surge, not rain, so there was nothing to douse them.
“We were trying to keep the kids calm and not let them know how bad the fires really were,” says Kelly-Ann. “But they knew something was wrong. I remember pulling my husband to the hallway and telling him, ‘We are all going to die tonight.’”
With embers hitting Weigert’s house, the Preisses once again decided to move, this time with a growing group of neighborhood refugees. They ventured back into 131st Street, the men carrying the children toward a house on the west side of the road. Now the water was nearly neck high. Weigert took Daniel, Chuck took Brooke, and another neighbor took Ashley. Kelly-Ann stayed behind at Weigert’s, waiting for Chuck to come back for her. “They left,” she says, “and all I remember saying was, ‘Please don’t let go of my baby.’”
The neighbor didn’t, and soon all the Preisses were huddled in yet another house, their third of the evening, across the street from Weigert’s. This seemed safe, but only for a moment, because soon the street directly west of them, 130th, began to burn.
It’s unclear what started the fires on 130th, or why they moved with such great appetite while only one home on 131st Street went up. (The embers that struck Ed Weigert’s place never fully caught on.) But what is clear is that about a dozen homes on both sides of Beach 130th Street completely burned.