When he raised the flag at the end of Beach 131st Street after Hurricane Sandy, 20-year-old Brendan Stackpole was truly raising the flag of his father.
As anyone familiar with the FDNY knows, his father was Captain Timothy Stackpole, who was severely burned in a fire in 1998 and demonstrated superhuman determination as he shunned a disability pension and spent three grueling years getting himself into condition to return to active duty. He was a newly promoted captain when he was killed at the World Trade Center.
Nobody who knows the family ever doubted that the father’s spirit lived on in his sons. And that was never clearer to their mother, Timothy's widow, Tara, than last Monday, when the city was hit by the biggest disaster since 9/11.
Hurricane Sandy was nightmare enough with the storm surge rising higher than the Stackpoles could have believed and then rising even higher, shockingly fast, with waves breaking in the street outside the family’s home in Rockaway.
Then they saw the flames, shooting up into the darkness just a few blocks away. Tara Stackpole’s closest friend and companion, retired firefighter Pete Brady, began to pace.
“I have to go,” Brady said.
Tara, Timothy’s widow and Brendan’s mother, had long since learned that a firefighter is a firefighter, retired or no.
“I know,” she said. “Just make sure you come back.”
Brendan got ready to go with him. His brothers, Brian and Terence, agreed to safeguard the house and keep their mother safe. The other brother, Keith, was at work in Manhattan. Tara watched as Brendan and Pete ventured together into the surge.
“Holding onto each other,” she recalls.
The two made their way into the darkness and toward the fire. They drew closer to see that half of a block of Beach 130th Street above Newport Avenue was engulfed. The social epicenter of the neighborhood, the Harbor Light restaurant, owned by a retired firefighter who lost a son on 9/11, was already all but consumed by fire. The place had miraculously escaped destruction when a jetliner crashed just across the street shortly after 9/11, but there was no saving it now. The wind was whipping the flames high into the sky, and burning embers were swirling all around.
They reached the scene just as a fire company commanded by Pete’s brother, Lt. Mike Brady, managed to get there. Pete and Brendan pitched in, along with two of Pete’s nephews, one a firefighter, another on the list to join.
Brendan is also on the list, and he was now facing a bigger blaze than some firefighters see in their entire careers. The seawater was higher than the fire hydrants, and the firefighters had to duck down into it to connect the hose. Brendan and Pete and the nephews joined in getting a line up onto the roof of a one-story structure at a gas station on Beach 129th Street.
There was no fighting such a fire in such a wind. The best they could do was to try to stop it. Brendan manned the nozzle and began directing water onto what otherwise would have been the next house to burn.
Brendan later said he was nervous in the first moments, but then something kicked in that steadied him. He would suggest that it had been adrenaline.
“You also had your father on your shoulder,” his mother would add.
The fire was stopped and the worst of the hurricane had passed as Brendan and Pete made their way back to the house. It had withstood the storm remarkably well, at least partly because it had been constructed with hurricanes in mind, perhaps also because somebody was keeping watch from on high.
Much of the neighborhood was devastated, and the Stackpoles heard stories of remarkable rescues, several involving surfboards and uncommon courage, one using knotted extension cords to pull kids to safety. The Stackpoles knew how lucky they should count themselves in this new disaster when they heard of a woman four blocks over who had cut her arm and then died when her family was unable to stop the bleeding and no help could reach them in the storm.
As Rockaway began what promised to be a long recovery, Tara watched all four of her sons pitch in to help, just as their father would have. They had no sooner finished helping one person than somebody else needed them. Brendan, Brian, Terence, and Kevin kept on with a familiar determination even as they became bone weary. Their sister Kaitlyn was showing what it means to be a Stackpole as an emergency-room nurse at a Manhattan hospital.
“I’m so proud of them,” Tara said. “Their father would be beaming.”
During the summers, Brendan and his buddies had taken to setting up a flag on a length of PVC pipe on the beach so their other friends could find them.
Brendan now carried the flag down to the end of the block, which was choked with sand that had been carried in by the storm surge. He planted the flag by what had been a sea wall on a spot flanked by two shattered houses. It flew amid the devastation with the spirit that had gone with him into the fire, that lived on so unmistakably in all the Stackpoles these 11 years after 9/11.
The flag was flying when a Navy flotilla appeared off shore, the Stars and Stripes seeming to welcome the amphibious vehicles that landed on the beach at a moment when it seemed that federal and local government had all but forgotten them.
“We don’t have FEMA, we don’t have Bloomberg, but we got the U.S. Navy!” a Rockaway neighbor exclaimed.
By Monday, a week after the hurricane hit, the initial adrenaline had worn off and the enormity of the damage had become only clearer. The days without power or heat had become increasingly wearing.
“Every day becomes Groundhog Day,” Tara said.
Tara worried aloud about a nor’easter that is supposed to hit New York later in the week. But she and her family have learned enough about irretrievable loss to keep a hard-earned perspective.
“We’ve been through worse,” she said.
On Monday morning, the youngest Stackpole brother, 17-year-old Terence, was back at school. The older brothers were still busy helping whoever needed it, as were so many of their neighbors. Kevin and Brian, who is also on the FDNY list, loaded two generators in to the back of an SUV. Brendan headed for a storm-struck store belonging to a family whose younger members are all daughters. They had put up a vintage Rosie the Riveter “Can Do” sign, but he figured they could still use a hand.
Over where the fire had raged, there was still a heavy smell of smoke. One of the gutted houses was home to a member of the FDNY who had a lawn statue of firefighter holding a hose. Another belongs to a family who had sign out front attesting to the sense of duty that makes the whole neighborhood special:
“Proud Host Family in Support of the Rockaway Adaptive Water Sports Festival.”
The festival is an annual event where wounded war vets are housed in local homes and coached in ways to participate in a wide range of water sports. A double amputee water-skiing is not a rare sight. You can count on the event being held again next summer, no matter how badly Rockaway was hit.
The row of burned houses stops before the end of the block, at the home where firefighters—active duty, retired, and future—were able to stop the blaze by applying the water, a Stackpole son manning a nozzle, his fallen father on his shoulder.
The flag that Brendan afterward planted at the end of his street was fluttering in a light breeze where there had been howling winds. The sea had receded and scudded harmlessly onto the beach, the water sparkling in the sunlight. The Navy ships remained off shore lest anyone be lulled into forgetting how many were still in need.
After another deeply dark night without power or heat, it would be Election Day. And this flag of his father would be flying with what is also the spirit of the FDNY and of what will continue to guide America at its best, no matter who is its president.