NEW YORK (AP) — A lifeguard widely praised as a hero after Superstorm Sandy for rescuing neighbors endangered by rolling floodwaters and a fire that destroyed several homes in a small community where grief has been a frequent visitor has died in a surfing accident in Puerto Rico.
The death of 23-year-old Dylan Smith on Sunday brought sadness again to residents of the Belle Harbor section of the Rockaways, which lost several police officers and firefighters in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and was the site of a deadly plane crash just months later.
As word spread that Smith, who used his surfboard to ferry so many people to safety during the late October superstorm, had lost his life, a Heroes of Rockaway Facebook page said: "R.I.P. to Dylan Smith, our Rockaway Hero, tragically died this morning surfing in Puerto Rico. He will never be forgotten."
Troy Bradwisch, who lives on the same street as the Smith family, said the presumed drowning death was "crushing" for the neighborhood.
"It was more shocking than anything," he said. "You can go through the storm and all that, and he goes on vacation to get a sense of normalcy and something like that happens."
Marguerite Wetzel, a Montauk resident who knows the Smith family from trips to Puerto Rico, could barely talk about the death.
"I have two sons, and he exemplified everything you would want your sons to be. I'm going to start tearing up," she said, her voice cracking.
Smith had lived with his parents and a 19-year-old brother when he was not at college. Fire Department of New York Chief Michael Light, a longtime friend of Smith's recently retired firefighter father, said someone who was with Smith in waters off Maria's Beach in the Puerto Rican community of Rincon notified him of the death.
"We know he died in the water while he was surfing. It's under investigation as to the cause," Light said. "I believe he was with some friends."
Smith's body was found floating near his surfboard, police said. Authorities said a resident of the Puerto Rican town, whose beaches attract surfers from across the world, spotted Smith in the water and took him to shore. They said a doctor tried to resuscitate him.
Light said Smith rescued as many as a dozen people during the superstorm by paddling from porch to porch with his surfboard, moving the helpless, including children and the elderly, from imperiled perches amid swirling floodwaters and a sky filled with flames from a gas line explosion as more than a dozen homes around him burned to the ground.
"It was totally brave and selfless," Light said.
People magazine, which named Smith one of its Heroes of the Year, credited Smith and neighbor Michael McDonnell with rescuing six people trapped by the flood and fire by connecting electric cords and twine into a makeshift rope that could be gripped as they walked the surfboard with people on it to safety at the storm's height.
The flood and fire occurred in a Queens neighborhood with an unusually high population of police officers and firefighters, which might explain why a higher proportion of residents lost their lives on Sept. 11 than just about anywhere else. Two months later, American Airlines Flight 587 smashed into a home, killing 265 people and setting off fires that destroyed the homes of those living around Smith and his family.
The Smith family home was spared again during Superstorm Sandy when fires destroyed neighbors' homes and the Harbor Light Restaurant, where Smith sometimes worked as a bartender.
Smith, who helped neighbors clean up and rebuild after the storm, had gone recently to Puerto Rico, where his family had a home in the popular beach town. Light said he could understand if Smith wanted some relief from the destruction in Belle Harbor.
"It's tough to look at," he said. "He figured rather than look out the window at the destruction here, post Sandy, all the rebuilding, he was going to take a little break and do a little surfing in Puerto Rico and get away for a while."
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Puerto Rico contributed to this report.