Superstorm Sandy was indiscriminate, walloping small homes, apartment buildings and mansions alike along the mid-Atlantic coast.

In its wake, two Portland firefighters joined an urban search-and-rescue task force, working with the Fire Department of New York to go house-to-house in areas of Staten Island and Queens.

“You see it on television, but until you can really experience it firsthand, there’s really no words that can describe it,” said Lt. Chris Tillotson, who works on the heavy rescue unit in Portland.

“Some of the houses were just flooded and people were trying to pump the water out. Other houses closer to the coast were damaged, or partially damaged, maybe where the back porch was ripped off,” he said. “There was one house in Staten Island where it was totally ripped off its foundation and torn in half.”

Tillotson and Lt. Chris Flemming are part of a Massachusetts-based urban search-and-rescue team that was called up and positioned in Bridgewater, Mass., on Oct. 29, just before the storm hit.

Sandy ravaged New York and New Jersey, but Massachusetts and Connecticut were spared the worst of it, so the 80-member team was assigned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist New York.

In an incident with widespread destruction, urban search-and-rescue teams, including structural- and hazardous-materials specialists, do an inventory of buildings, identifying those that are unsafe and searching for victims.

Tillotson said his team was fortunate.

“We didn’t find (bodies) during our searches, thank God. That’s always in the back of your mind when you’re doing this,” he said.

The team often didn’t have to search homes because the residents were outside or came to the door. Instead, the team made sure generators were well ventilated, and LP gas tanks were used safely, he said.

In one very long day, the task force checked on 1,600 structures, he said.

One of the positive things that struck Tillotson was how close-knit the neighborhoods were in Staten Island and Queens.

“There might have been only one person there. You ask them if they knew if everyone was accounted for and they pretty much could tell you ‘yes,’” he said. “They knew all their neighbors, knew them by name, could tell if they left before the storm or left recently.”

He said that made the team’s job easier and allowed it to cover more ground.

“One of the ladies in Queens, she didn’t think ever in a million years it would be happening to her there,” he said. “One minute she’s up on her porch, next minute she sees water coming, grabs her grandchildren and gets into the house. Before she knew it, her basement had 6 to 8 feet of water in it.”

Tillotson said there’s a lesson in that woman’s perspective.

“You always hear ‘It will never happen here,’” he said. “Just last year alone, when the tornado hit in Springfield, Mass., and then the devastation of Irene in Vermont and now Sandy, everything is changing. It’s a matter of time before we have something like that hit here on the coast of Maine.”


Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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