NEW YORK — In the chaotic days after Superstorm Sandy, an army of aid workers streamed onto the flood-ravaged Rockaway Peninsula looking for anyone who needed help. Health workers and National Guard troops went door to door. City inspectors checked thousands of dwellings for damage. Seaside neighborhoods teemed with utility crews, Red Cross trucks and crews clearing debris.
Yet, even as the months dragged by, nobody thought to look inside the tiny construction trailer rusting away in a junk-filled lot at the corner of Beach 40th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard.
If they had, they would have found the body of Keith Lancaster, a quiet handyman who appeared to have been using the trailer as a home the night Sandy sent 5 feet of water churning through the neighborhood.
It took until April 5 before an acquaintance finally went to check on the 62-year-old’s whereabouts and found his partially skeletonized remains. His body lay near a calendar that hadn’t been turned since October and prescription pill bottles last refilled in the fall.
New York City’s medical examiner announced this week that Lancaster had drowned, making him the 44th person ruled to have died in New York City because of the storm.
Neighborhood residents described Lancaster as a loner and something of a drifter, and police said he had never been reported missing. No one stepped forward to claim his body from the city morgue, either, after he was finally discovered this spring. He was buried in a potter’s field on an island in Long Island Sound, the medical examiner’s office said. A police missing-person squad is still trying to identify any relatives.
But in life, he was well liked by some of the people who saw him sweeping sidewalks around the vacant lot where he sometimes slept.
“When we first moved here, he weeded our entire backyard,” said Gerald Sylvester, 55, a retired transit worker who lives in a small bungalow just feet from the trailer where Lancaster died.
Sylvester and his wife, Carrie Vaughan, 60, said Lancaster also mended their fence and once fixed an outdoor light at their house — but he always refused any money for his help. He wouldn’t take any food, either, when they offered, and politely declined their invitations to come inside, explaining he didn’t like to go into people’s houses.
“He didn’t talk a lot, but if he knew you, you could have a decent conversation,” said Vaughan. “He was very nice. A gentleman at all times.”
She said it wasn’t entirely clear where he was living. Lancaster, who the family said looked slightly frail, told her he didn’t want to settle in one place.
As the storm approached and the neighborhood evacuated, Sylvester said he went looking for Lancaster to see if he wanted to leave with the family, but never found him.
After the Oct. 29 storm, many neighborhood residents were unable to return to their homes. Even today, some buildings remain empty or under repair. Vaughan and Sylvester were away for two months, living in a FEMA-funded apartment, before they came back.
The lot where Lancaster’s trailer sat has been vacant for many years and, at just 15 feet wide, is easy to miss. Someone passing by would probably assume, wrongly, that it is the side yard of one of the bungalows that sit next door.
The company that owns the plot, the Master Sheet Co., hasn’t paid any property taxes on the parcel for years, according to city records, and it wasn’t clear whether anyone associated with the business was aware someone was living on the property. A lawyer for the owners, Robert Rosenblatt, said Wednesday that he wasn’t immediately able to reach his clients.
New York City’s Office of Emergency Management spokesman Christopher Miller said that search and rescue teams searched 30,000 homes in areas hit by the storm, but hadn’t entered the trailer.
“As nobody had reported the deceased missing and we had no reason to believe that someone had been (illegally) residing in the trailer, we did not seek access to the structure,” he said in an email.
The lot where Lancaster died remained filled with junk this week, including an old office chair, plastic crates and bottles and stuffed animals. The trailer — barely big enough to stand in — is itself filled with trash.
Vaughan said that when her family returned home, she wondered what had become of Lancaster, but never suspected that he had been killed or that his body was in the trailer, which sits on cinder blocks just a few feet from her home.
“He was like a fixture of the community. We were wondering what happened to him,” said Vaughan. “We would’ve taken him with us.”