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Superstorm Sandy destroyed precious reminders of 9/11

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Thursday, September 5, 2013 - 8:16 am

NEW YORK — The letters and photos were beyond value — some of the mementos Joe Quinn still had to remember his older brother Jimmy, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Now they are gone, sullied by floodwaters and charred by fires that tore through the Queens community of Breezy Point last October during Superstorm Sandy.

From photos and letters to coffin liners and actual memorials, scores of families from Breezy Point and Rockaway — two Queens beachside neighborhoods hit particularly hard by both events — lost cherished reminders of loved ones taken by one tragedy that were then swept away by another.

"Stuff is just stuff, but the mementos, they hurt you a bit more," said Quinn, a 33-year-old Army veteran who remembers one photo in particular that is now gone, taken of the two brothers arm in arm in a bar, smiling, just two weeks before the 2001 attacks.

"Six months later, it sort of sunk in," Quinn said. "Once a week my wife and I would say, 'Hey, this picture or that letter is gone.'"

Home to firefighters, police officers and other first responders, everyone in Breezy and Rockaway, it seemed, knew someone killed on 9/11. Of the more than 2,700 who died that day in New York, about 80 were residents of the two neighborhoods, including almost 30 firefighters.

Rockaway also suffered at least five deaths from Superstorm Sandy, and the toll in property damage was devastating. About 150 Breezy Point homes burned to the ground in a single night from fires apparently sparked when floodwaters hit electrical lines. About half of Rockaway Beach's 5.5 miles of boardwalk was destroyed, and subway service to the peninsula was shut down for months after the surge ruined wiring and washed away tracks.

As the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, families from the two neighborhoods are still recovering. In Breezy Point and Rockaway, few homes have been rebuilt as neighbors fight with insurance companies, banks and the federal government for permits and funds. But what hurts the most are the things they can't possibly rebuild.

Patrick Dowdell, whose firefighter father, Lt. Kevin Dowdell, was killed in the south tower, said there was an eerie similarity between the two events when, the day after Sandy struck, 20 of his father's fellow firefighters showed up at his mom's flooded Breezy Point home to help — just as they had at ground zero after the attacks.

"The guys from Rescue 4 went to ground zero and dug every day from start to finish until there was nothing else to dig through," said Patrick Dowdell, 30, also an Army veteran, who now works in advertising. "The day after the storm, those same guys showed up at my front door, like, 'What can I do?'"

Kevin Dowdell's remains were never recovered. The only identifiable item found was a red Halligan — a fireman's tool used to break through windows and doors — engraved with the elder Dowdell's initials, given to him after his promotion. It was in the 7-foot Breezy Point basement that Kevin Dowdell, a handyman, finished himself.

The basement flooded during Sandy, destroying most of Dowdell's tools, as well as a casket liner made of soft white felt and marked in red stitching with his birth date, initials and the fire department's crest.

The Halligan was recovered — for a second time — after the storm, lying among piles of wet and ruined items in the basement.

"I'm a new father, and I realize the importance of having these mementos to look back on for my children when I'm not here," said Patrick Dowdell.

A Rockaway fixture that became a monument of sorts to Sept. 11 was destroyed by Sandy. The Harbor Light, a restaurant and pub owned by the Heeran family for 33 years, burned — and with it dozens of photos of people from the neighborhood killed on Sept. 11.

"It was kind of like 'Cheers,'" said pub co-owner and firefighter Billy Heeran, calling it a place where 9/11 families were regulars, sitting in the same spots, in chairs below photos of their loved ones.

Like so many others, Heeran is battling with banks and insurers to get the money he needs to rebuild, hoping to reopen by Thanksgiving 2014.

"It literally burnt down to the foundation," he said of what was once a neighborhood staple full of mementos. "It's a pile of metal. We couldn't find anything."

Not far away, a park built in memory of those killed during the attacks was mangled by the storm. Tribute Park, completed in 2005, which offers clear views of lower Manhattan across Jamaica Bay, suffered nearly $20,000 in damage. The storm destroyed the underground electrical system, uprooted brick pavers, and damaged lights and gravel areas around the steel monument.

Bernie Warnock, president of Friends of Tribute Park, said that this Sept. 11, despite the damage caused by Sandy, about 200 people are expected to gather for a small service, as they have since the park's opening.

"It's the Rockaway tradition," he said. "Pull up your bootstraps and get on with your life."