By Michelle Conlin
ROCKAWAYS, New York (Reuters) - Just before dinner on Monday night, 75-year-old Bruce Bavasso was slugging back sambuca with his neighbors in a private beach community in the Rockaways in New York City. There was a lot of pasta, some hurricane humor and a lot of ribbing about the storm.
This was Belle Harbor, the same broad-shouldered, tight-knit beach community where an American Airlines plane crashed in November 2001, killing all aboard and five people on the ground. There was no way tragedy would strike the place again, or so Bavasso and his friends thought.
By early Tuesday morning, Bavasso's three-storey house was a pile of smoldering rubble, one of about a dozen homes in Belle Harbor destroyed by fire as Sandy hammered the U.S. East Coast.
In nearby Breezy Point, 110 homes burned to the ground and another 20 were damaged by flames spread by near-hurricane force winds, according to a fire department spokesperson.
"We watched all the houses burn. The firemen couldn't come," said Bavasso, a retired math teacher. "My BBQ got barbecued."
Like Breezy Point, Belle Harbor sits on a narrow spit of land that thrusts into the Atlantic Ocean southwest of the John F. Kennedy International Airport. The area had been extensively flooded by Sandy's record storm surge, which marooned the beach community from firefighters who sped to the scene.
Both neighborhoods had been under a mandatory evacuation order but many people had remained, thinking they could take care of themselves. A lot of retired cops and firefighters live in the area.
Belle Harbor residents say the first house to light up around 9 p.m. EDT on Monday was on 129th Street. The wind blew the blaze catty-corner to the top of Bavasso's 100-year-old wood-framed house, one street up.
From there, it was a fireball domino, engulfing one house and then the next, and then leaping across the street to torch the Harbor Light Pub.
"All of the sudden, the wind shifted, and it blew the fire right up the block," said builder Jonathan O'Leary, 39.
The cause of the fires, which raged through the night, was being investigated. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg said there were no casualties in the Breezy Point fire. It was not yet known if anyone died in Belle Harbor.
"To describe it as looking like pictures we've seen of the end of World War Two is not overstating it," Bloomberg, who walked through the area, told a news conference. "The area was completely leveled. Chimneys and foundations were all that was left of many of these homes."
Residents in Far Rockaway could see the flames in Belle Harbor, and beyond that, the balls of fire in Breezy Point, which by sun up would be a smoking ruin.
FIRE AND WATER
When they saw the first flames, Bavasso and his wife and son rushed to their basement. But then their basement windows started to buckle, and water poured in. Bavasso raced upstairs and threw his family's passports, birth certificates, cell phones and keys into a plastic bag.
"I was pulled out of the flames," Bavasso said. "The water was coming from everywhere, at such speed."
The next thing Bavasso remembers is hanging on to the shoulder of his friend, O'Leary, who had donned a bathing suit and swam through 6 feet (1.82 meter) of water to rescue his neighbors across the street. Other residents used surf boards and boogie boards.
The night was mad with the sound of sirens as fire trucks raced to the rescue. But the floods had surged too high, too fast. Fire trucks trying to get to Breezy Point encountered a wall of water outside and in Belle Harbor. Firefighters had to wade waist deep to get to the blaze, or use inflatable boats.
Residents grabbed their surf boards and boogie boards, anything that would float. The full moon cast some light on the darkened neighborhood.
On Tuesday morning, the bridges to the Rockaways had been blocked off by the National Guard. Belle Harbor's downtown shopping district had also been ravaged by fire, and the boardwalk had been ripped from its pilings and strewn throughout the street. Many store fronts were crumpled and petroleum pooled in the gutters.
Cars and boats were smacked about the sidewalks like toys. The power was out, and predicted to stay out for days. There wasn't a bagel, cup of coffee or bathroom to be found.
The smell of smoke was still in the air.
Another of Bavasso's neighbors said his nearby deli was all gone. "The fridges are upside down," said Peter Hwan, 59.
As Bavasso stood on 130th Street next to his metal mailbox - the only thing left on his destroyed property - his neighbors came to hug him goodbye, many still wearing waders or wet suits. He was leaving to join his family in Brooklyn.
Each time he was hugged, Bavasso choked up and said, "We're fine; we're fine."
He had bought the house in 1982, gutted the place and slowly renovated it, room by room. "I just did new landscaping, new flowers. But all the pictures we have are gone," he said.
As he was talking, another neighbor came up to him and kissed him on the cheek. "That's our equity," the man said, pointing to their side-by-side properties. "That's our bank."
(Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Additional reporting by Dan Burns and Dan Trotta; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Lisa Shumaker)