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Devastation in Breezy Point stuns residents

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Tom Duffy, who has lived in Breezy Point for the past 23 years, searches the rubble of his home for salvageable items. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Mary Welsome ventures into the rubble to look for her wedding ring. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Art and Pat Tully peer into the remnants of their summer home in Breezy Point. Photo by Christina Santucci
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John Martin walks across the deck of the home he bought in March of 2012.
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Tom Duffy, who has lived in Breezy Point for the past 23 years, searches the rubble of his home for salvageable items. Photo by Christina Santucci

Many people returned to Breezy Point for the first time after Hurricane Sandy to see if their houses were still standing Wednesday, two days after a six-alarm fire leveled more than 100 houses and catastrophic flooding destroyed many more.

“Thank God we’re all safe,” said Mary Welsome, whose house was destroyed in the fire and said she was at the site hoping to find her wedding ring.

“I’m thinking material things, they can always be replaced,” she said. “But so many memories. It’s so sad, dear God.”

The ravaged western end of the Rockaway Peninsula, where the beachfront community is located, reminded some of the stark images of bombed-out Europe during World War II.

At the scene of the fire little remained of the houses that once stood except charred wood and stone foundations. The rubble was still smoldering in places and the air smelled strongly of smoke. A few severed pipes spouted water.

Some people walked stunned through the wreckage. Others stood just beyond, gathering with neighbors to share comfort.

Firefighters were still on the scene, searching houses for people and securing hazardous areas, including a partially burned house in danger of collapse.

About 170 National Guardsmen and 30 vehicles were deployed across Breezy Point, Howard Beach and Far Rockaway, augmenting the Fire Department’s work, said Eric Durr, a spokesman for New York’s Division of Military and Naval Affairs.

He said typically the National Guard helps fire and police officers get to places they otherwise would not be able to reach and set up traffic control points.

FDNY Assistant Chief Joseph Pfeifer said high water levels were still making the efforts challenging.

He said the Fire Department was working with the city Department of Environmental Protection and the Breezy Point Cooperative, which runs the private community, to restore the water supply to the area and enable residents to return to the homes that remained standing.

“This is a devastated community,” he said, pointing out that the FDNY and other city agencies were committed to helping the area rebuild.

In the meantime, one woman whose home was partially burned in the fire and sustained severe flood damage said she did not know what her family would do.

“I don’t know where we’re going to live, where we’re going to stay,” said Christina Kirk.

She said family members had been staying in separate locations since the storm, with some in Brooklyn and others in Long Island.

“We had to split up. There was nothing else we could do,” she said. “I haven’t seen my daughter in four days.”

So far, no casualties had been reported in the fire, which broke out Monday night and raged until Tuesday morning. It is unclear yet what caused the raging blaze, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the winds had been a devastating factor in its spread, blowing the flame from one building to the next in an area where houses stood close together.

Through the night neighbors who had not evacuated knocked on doors to find others who had also stayed behind and bring them to safety, said Meg McLoughlin, whose house is in the neighborhood.

She said she brought about 50 people to her home, many whom crowded on her deck.

“Whoever we could take in we took in,” she said. “Animals, people, everyone. We were doing what we could to save the neighbors.”

Meanwhile, efforts by the Fire Department to put out the blaze were hampered by floodwaters.

Tom O’Day, who worked for 35 years as a firefighter in Brooklyn and whose girlfriend lives in Breezy Point, said the water rose chest-high on the roads Monday night and fire engines were having extreme difficulty getting through.

He said he has never seen a fire like the one that razed through the neighborhood.

“That was the worst fire I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Elsewhere in Breezy Point Wednesday, people braved long lines of traffic and parked far away on Rockaway Point Boulevard to hike in through streets still flooded in areas. Debris littered the ground and blocked pathways and residents warned of hidden cesspools. One man carried away what possessions he could salvage from his home in a child’s wagon.

Many houses not destroyed by the fire were devastated by floodwaters. Some homes were knocked off their foundations, tilting precariously to one side. Others were missing entire walls.

One man returned to his Breezy Point house with his family to find it rocked from its foundation, ripped apart from the chimney that still remained standing.

John Martin said he had just bought the house in March and it was intended as a summer home, but now “it’s obviously a total loss.”

But he said he was determined to rebuild.

“We have to,” he said. “I think everyone will. This is the type of place where everyone will pull together and in a year or two years you’ll have most of this rebuilt, I’m positive.”

Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at kfrantz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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