‘Modern-Day Biblical’

New York Firefighters Clear the Way for Rebuilding in Puerto Rico

On the day the department honored its fallen members, their spirit was with the 28 firefighters who cleared the way with their hands, and then machetes.

During a six-day private mission to Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, FDNY Lt. Jorge Luis Torres of Rescue 4 tracked down all except one of his relatives in a ravaged realm largely without phone service, passable roads, power or water.

“They have nothing,” Torres said. “It’s like modern day biblical.”

He had yet to find his cousin Elizabeth Cruz when the time came for him to leave, but he was surprised with a call after his return to New York.

“I looked at my phone,” he later told The Daily Beast. “It was her. She said, ‘I heard you were in town.’”

Cruz meant in San Juan. She is one of 22 teachers at the Proyecto Especial Para Desarrollo De Talento Escuela Antonio S. Pedreira, the Special Project for Development of Talent Antonio Pedreira School there. She said that the staff and the 300 students were anxious to resume classes, but the school could not reopen until debris from the hurricane was cleared. The teachers were unable to do it themselves.

“They can deal without the lights, they can deal without the water, they just want to get the school going,” Torres later told The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘I’ll make some calls. I’ll call you back.’”

Torres reached out to retired NYPD Detective Keith McLaughlin, bother of FDNY firefighter Peter McLaughlin of Rescue 4, who was killed in an arson fire in 1995. Keith is one of those guys who always knows what to do and who to contact to get it done and he started making some calls to see who was down in Puerto Rico and able to help.

In the meantime, Torres tried texting two Rescue 4 comrades, firefighters Edwin Sanchez and Giovanni Martinez, who were down in Puerto Rico with an FDNY Incident Management Team (IMT). The team had been checking on firehouses there, which sometimes lacked the most basic necessities, not to mention functioning generators and communications capabilities. They had just completed their 14-day deployment when Torres’ text reached them on Tuesday evening. They were due to pack up the following day in preparation for heading home.

Torres now told his comrades about his cousin and the school. Sanchez and Martinez went to their bosses, Battalion Chief Michael Kendall and Deputy Chief Mark Ferran, who said they could take some volunteers. Sanchez (kneeling and holding yellow gloves in the group photo) and Martinez (standing in front of the sign) immediately had more than enough.

“As soon as I mentioned it, everybody started jumping forward,” Sanchez recalled. “It was great.”

Wednesday happened to be the 110th annual FDNY Memorial Day. The IMT began the morning with a prayer and a ceremony honoring the 12 members of the FDNY who died in the past year, and all of the 1,147 who made the ultimate sacrifice in the department’s history.

The spirit of those fallen firefighters—Peter McLaughlin among them—joined 28 living firefighters who then piled into a half dozen jeeps. They used Google maps offline to load a local map on their phones and that enabled them to use satellite-fed GPS to find the home of Torres’ cousin, Cruz, without cell service. They found her waiting for them, as Torres had instructed her via a text from New York.

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I told her, ‘Stay right in front of your house; these guys will find you,’” Torres would remember.

The neighbors seemed as surprised as might be expected by the sudden appearance of jeeploads of New York City firefighters.

“We’re all in uniform,” Martinez later said. “People were looking at us like, ‘What’s gong on?’”

Cruz herself seemed startled by what a call to New York the day before had now actually brought.

“I think she was somewhat overwhelmed,” Martinez later said.

Sanchez joined the cousin in her car. He noted the rear window had been shattered and the passenger side had been smashed during the hurricane.

“Taken by the wind and thrown up against a pole,” Sanchez later told The Daily Beast.

With the cousin’s battered car in the lead, the convoy soon reached the school named after the Puerto Rican writer and educator Antonio Pedreira, whose famous book Insularismo examines the cultural forces at work on the island.

Along with Taino, Spanish, and African influences there now arose the pure spirit of the FDNY as the firefighters beheld the school grounds made hazardous by downed trees and branches and sheet metal and aluminum gutters and other debris. They alighted from the Jeeps with a particular look common to FDNY members of all cultures and ethnicities.

“I saw in their eyes… they knew what needed to be done,” Sanchez later said. “They’re ready to go.”

Unlike the Urban Search and Rescue team fielded by the FDNY in conjunction with the NYPD, the IMT does not deploy with tools. The firefighters set to clearing the area with only their hands until some onlookers came over.

“A couple of neighbors saw what we were doing and they lent us their machetes,” Sanchez recalled.

Sanchez figured they might be able to get a chainsaw from a local firehouse that would better enable them to handle the biggest downed trees. He set off with the cousin as his 21 comrades continued with the rest.

“I told her, ‘By the time we get back, most of this will be gone,’” Sanchez would recall. “She said, ‘Impossible.’”

The firefighters continued to work as they would at a job in New York; each showing individual initiative, but functioning as a team in which every member just seemed to know what to do. Martinez saw that some of the local kids were watching the effort.

“They were quite amazed,” Martinez later said. “They were very happy.”

Sanchez and his cousin completed the 20-minute round trip to the firehouse and she saw that most of the debris had indeed been cleared away.

“She couldn’t believe how much work had been done in the time we went and came back,” Sanchez later said.

The firehouse only had a small chainsaw that conked out after just one branch as they sought to use it on the bigger stuff that remained.

“It was basically useless,” Sanchez later said. “We just kept going with the machetes.”

At one point, 10 of them joined together to lift a big trunk. They were feeling the heat and humidity when the neighbors presented them with something made precious amidst the post-hurricane deprivation.

“They’re offering us their water, knowing they might not be able to get water again,” Sanchez recalled. “They’re giving us what they don’t have.”

He added simply, “Good people.”

The firefighters also got hold of some rakes and set to clearing away the remarkable volume of leaves that the hurricane had stripped from the trees.

“Some of the trees were missing bark because the wind was so intense,” Sanchez later said.

When the work was done, the building and grounds were transformed. 

“Back to what a school should look like,” Sanchez remembered.

The cousin’s eyes were welling as she thanked them in Spanish.

“She was so happy and grateful.” Sanchez later reported. “She said Monday morning, they should have the clearance to go back to school.”

In New York, Torres was attending the FDNY memorial gathering at the firefighter’s monument in Manhattan. He had set his cellphone to silent and he could feel it vibrate during the ceremony. He checked it afterward and saw that even as the fallen were being remembered on the Upper West Side, living firefighters down in San Juan had been texting him to report that the FDNY spirit had worked its magic.

“Perfect,” Sanchez said afterward.

Back down in Puerto Rico, the IMT volunteers returned to their base and finished packing up. They are now all back home in New York, which has suffered blackouts and Hurricane Sandy, but nothing in the magnitude of the giant wipeout dealt Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria.

Sanchez recalled going into firehouses in Puerto Rico that had no food.

“If they had nothing there we would just leave our lunches,” Sanchez recalled.

He said of the overall effort, “We made a lot of friends.”

Martinez spoke of returning.

“Hopefully, I’ll go back later on to see what I can do on my own,” he said. “They need help, a lot of help.”

Torres remembered aloud the mudslides and monster sinkholes he encountered when he traveled into the interior on his private mission in search of relatives. He said that even bees down in Puerto Rico are having difficulty obtaining the necessities, as he discovered when four of them alighted on his chest. A local cop noted his alarm.

“The cop tells me, ‘Don’t worry about it, they’re confused,’” Torres recounted to The Daily Beast. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean they’re confused?’”

The cop stood with him in a realm the hurricane had scoured of nectar-bearing blooms.

“He said, ‘They’re nothing to eat, my man. There’s nothing to suck on.”

Sanchez has maintained as much contact as he can with his relatives, who report to him of the continuing conditions in his familial land.

“There are so many hardships,” Sanchez said of Puerto Rico. “Right now, people are suffering. They’re scared. You can hear it in their voices.” 

But if his cousin’s school still has neither water nor power, it will be ready to reopen on Monday.

“Pretty cool,” Torres said.