The reconstruction of Rockaway in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy began last week when off-duty firefighters raised the awning from the burned ruins of what had been the social center of New York’s richest neighborhood as measured by spirit.
They then set the miraculously unscathed section of canvas bearing the words Harbor Light Pub upon four 4-by-4 beams they had lashed together with plastic ties to the iron railing of the brick stoop that is all that remains of a storied gathering place.
The Harbor Light had been no less important to this Queens enclave of firefighters and cops than the Stork Club had been to the swells of cafe society in Manhattan, where wealth is measured in money. The Stork Club could boast of Elizabeth Taylor, but the Harbor Light had Peggy Moran, the wise and wonderful mother of firefighters John and Mike. She was always given the best table by the window.
And where the Stork Club had Sherman Billingsley, the Harbor Light had Bernie Heeran, a retired firefighter, sandhog, and still grieving father of a son lost on 9/11. The photos on the walls of Heeran’s establishment were not of movie stars and socialites but of true celebrities: first responders who had given their lives.
Two flags stood beside Harbor Light’s front steps. One was of course the Stars and Stripes. The other was a white banner bearing shamrocks and the letters RIB. These letters stood for three boyhood friends, the Rockaway Irish Boys.
One was Bernie Heeran’s son Charlie, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and perished in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Another was Christopher Lawler, who was killed when an airliner crashed catty-corner from the Harbor Light two months after 9/11. The third was Michael Glover, a Marine who enlisted because of 9/11 and was killed by a sniper in Iraq in 2006. He had been wearing a cross made from Trade Center steel given to him by his uncle, FDNY Chief of Department Pete Hayden, who can be seen in command in the famous video shot in the lobby of the North Tower.
The weekend before the hurricane, people who had known all three boys had gone up the flag-flanked stoop for a great night at the Harbor Light. They stood among the photos of the fallen and talked and laughed. There was even a little singing.
When they left, everybody figured they would all be back for the Thanksgiving eve gathering there that has become a kind of tradition. The routine was to do all your prep cooking and then go up to the Harbor Light, not making it too late a night, because Thanksgiving Day was a big in this realm of family, friends, and faith. Thanksgiving in Rockaway also required more energy here, as first responders work at all hours even on holidays, and some families had to juggle sittings for the big meal to accommodate those working days and nights and midnights.
But Thanksgiving was still three weeks away when the hurricane hit. And with it came the fire that claimed the Harbor Light and much of the block behind it, along with several houses across the street. A firefighter who had been among the happy crowd the weekend before ended up rescuing his 81-year-old mother by tying her to a surf board and then returning to rescue a woman in a wheelchair in a kayak, all with the help of his 14-year-old son.
After the adrenaline rush of the emergency came the seemingly never-ending effort to clear away the debris. A firefighter’s wife who had been at the Harbor Light that last great night remarked on how it was surreal to be among those needing help.
A fatigue set in and was so manifest among those on the Communion line at the 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Francis De Sales Church that a Eucharistic minister stood with tears running down her face as one weary face after another appeared before her in the public intimacy of distributing the Host. The more profoundly drained ones were developing a blank look that one police commander has come to call the Sandy Stare.
But there was also the Sign of Peace, which was repeated at the noon Mass. And in both instances the unheated church filled with warmth of another kind as just handshakes did not seem enough and people embraced.
‘This is a Rockaway story. They’re saying, Now we’re really never going to leave.’
After Mass, even some of those who now had heat in their houses went to the warming tent across the street in search of more of this other kind of warmth. They stood under the canvas and talked and even laughed. They almost could have been at the Harbor Light.
“There is such a need for people to gather,” one Harbor Light regular noted.
She further remarked that the heroes in the aftermath of this disaster were not the cops and the firefighters, but the sanitation workers who had been working double shifts and more to clear away the debris and sand. This branch of city civil service is often underappreciated, but that seemed to be ending as the woman saw a group of sanitation workers sitting exhausted after giving their all.
“You rock!” she exclaimed.
Among those at the noon Mass was Pete Hayden, now retired as the FDNY’s top uniformed commander. His daughter’s home in harder-hit Breezy Point had been destroyed, but his home here in Rockaway was repairable. So was the home of his son, young Pete, though it was across the street from the Harbor Light and directly next to a house that had burned to the ground. The heat had been so intense as to melt the side shutters on young Pete’s house.
Others had not been so lucky, yet before too very long young Pete will be surrounded not by burned ruins but by homes being built anew by neighbors who are determined to remain.
“This is a Rockaway story,” said the elder Pete Hayden. “They’re saying, ‘Now we’re really never going to leave.’”
Bernie Heeran has told several people that he is not sure whether he will rebuild the Harbor Light, suggesting that he might leave the decision up to his two surviving sons, Sean and Billy, who are now both firefighters. But he has also said that in the interim he might erect his own kind of warming tent, one that would offer the Harbor Light’s particular kind of Irish warmth.
In the meanwhile, firefighters who had spent weeks in the ruins of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11 arrived at the remains of Harbor Light to help the senior Heeran recover what little he could. The firefighters discovered a considerable amount of beer in the rubble and Heeran explained that he had planned to have a hurricane party in that time when the anticlimax of last year’s Hurricane Irene lulled everybody into imagining Sandy would not be so bad.
The firefighters were then inspired to reinstall the awning over the stoop, a first symbolic bit of rebuilding amidst the continuing adversity that will sorely test Rockaway’s great spirit as winter deepens.
Against the Sandy Stare now stood a wonderfully preposterous awning that brought a smile.
The firefighters ended sitting on the steps with Heeran and having a beer.
“We said, ‘Bernie, you’re open for business,’” one of the firefighters recalled.