A Queens High Rise Where Fear, Death and Myth Collided

December 20, 2012 |
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On Nov. 7, little more than a week after Hurricane Sandy battered New York, a filmmaker, Kate Balandina, navigated the dark hallways and staircases of 7-11 Seagirt Avenue, four hulking towers with more than 900 apartments along the beach in Far Rockaway, Queens.

The action she captured played out by flashlight beam, illuminating elderly men and women swaddled in coats, robes, sweaters, hats and scarves in their apartments. “It’s cold, so cold,” one gray-haired man said in Russian, sounding short of breath. The privately owned high rise had been without heat, water or working elevators since the evening of the storm.

In the lobby, Rodney Duff, a burly resident in a black sweatshirt, made a grim prediction. “Two hundred seniors that can’t move up and down these stairs,” Mr. Duff said. “One of them is going to die in this building tonight.”

Those scenes inside the complex, known as the Sand Castle, soon appeared in a disturbing five-minute video on YouTube, telling what has become a familiar story in the storm’s aftermath. Like thousands of other vulnerable city residents, the tenants endured hunger, cold and fear for days, deprived of assistance and, in some cases, vital medicines. Almost everyone — the residents, their families, the building owners, city officials and aid workers — was poorly prepared for the magnitude of need caused by power failures that persisted long after the hurricane had passed.

But the video produced by Ms. Balandina, who was volunteering aid and pulled out her camera because she was horrified at what she was seeing, made this story all its own. After YouTube viewers witnessed the desperation at the Far Rockaway complex, some sprang into action. Aid convoys rumbled in from out of state. People as far away as Britain called City Hall, pleading that officials help the Sand Castle. Ambulances were summoned there by residents of Pennsylvania.

Facebook reports and blog posts, some by people who had not visited the buildings, even circulated accounts of multiple bodies being removed from the complex when the power was out. Those reports were not borne out by the police, medical examiner and health department records, but they contributed to the making of a myth, a social-media tale that seemed believable amid so much misery.

After the lights came on nearly two weeks after the storm, Danny Sanchez, an assistant superintendent, used a master key to enter Apartment C on the 13th floor of Building B, where no one had answered the door on repeated visits. There, he found Thomas S. Anderson, 89, who had lived alone, face up on the floor beside his bed.

His was the sole death at the Sand Castle, where no one in the days after the storm could claim to understand the full story of what was happening and what it meant.

The New York City medical examiner’s office classified Mr. Anderson’s death as natural after consulting with his doctor. A World War II veteran, he was buried the next week with military honors at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island. Without an autopsy, the specific factors that preceded his death and the possible ways the post-hurricane conditions might have contributed to it — A fall in his unlighted studio? Heart disease worsened by stress? — will never be known.

But what can be said for certain is that Mr. Anderson spent his last days largely alone in the dark, trapped high above the ground without heat, dependent on the haphazard good will of others for his survival.

Perpetually Cool

Mr. Anderson projected cool well into his 80s, a tattooed, earring-wearing great-grandfather with a white Van Dyke mustache that curved into a goatee. He wore glasses and rarely left his apartment without a baseball cap or beanie and his clip-on, yellow-tinted shades.

Before retiring, Mr. Anderson, a native of North Carolina, had worked in a post office and as a supervisor at Marboro Books in Lower Manhattan, a chain acquired by Barnes & Noble. He once took tailoring classes to learn to make his own suits, and loved baseball — he had played with an old-timers club in Harlem called The Unknowns and watched or attended nearly every Mets game.

In his early 20s, he was an Army infantryman who served in the Pacific during World War II and earned several decorations, his daughter, Jannette Elliott, said.

After the death of a longtime companion, Geraldine Blackburne, Mr. Anderson moved to the Rockaways in January 2006 to be closer to Ms. Elliott (he also had two sons, a stepdaughter and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, some of whom lived nearby).

The buildings at 7-11 Seagirt were then known as the Roy Reuther Houses after the United Auto Workers officer and the brother of Walter Reuther. The union initiated a plan to build the apartments in the early 1970s with low-interest government loans to house older people, and the services attracted Mr. Anderson, who did not drive. He took advantage of a twice-weekly bus for shopping and occasionally joined field trips to a casino.

Around the time of his arrival, the apartment block was sold twice, and the new owners — an investor group called Sarasota Gold L.L.C. that paid $98 million — began charging market-rate rents and planning an image makeover.

Posters went up in the lobby encouraging potential renters to “Live the Life You’ve Always Dreamed.” A collage of pictures included one of a bikini-clad blonde kicking up surf as she jogged on the beach holding hands with a handsome young man. The owners chose a new, playful name — the Sand Castle — and labeled floor plans with British-sounding references like “Dover,” “Stanton” and “Ardsley.”

The complex, though, kept gentrification at bay. In recent years, a man was stabbed in a lobby. Someone shot at another person, but missed. A woman leapt from a fourth story window after an argument with a friend. A man with one leg and a history of mental illness was charged with beating his mother to death with a crutch.

Residents complained in the local newspaper about high rents, bedbug infestations, dog feces in the hallways and “people from the shelters” — the tenants who arrived instead of the hoped-for upscale residents. In an online apartment ratings forum, Melissa Gursky, a rental agent for the building, pleaded for patience. “It’s hard to sell the potential of this building to people who know its history,” she wrote. “We *are* asking tenants to take a leap of faith with us.”

Mr. Anderson’s rent rose to $1,100, but he paid only $430 a month; the balance was covered by the state, which also supported many of the complex’s nearly 2,000 other residents, who included Russian and Latino immigrants, veterans and battered women. About one-third were elderly or disabled.

By 2012, Mr. Anderson had a pacemaker and high blood pressure, and had undergone chemotherapy and radiation therapy for throat cancer. He had trouble with his balance and sometimes stooped over a walker. He grew more frail, and his memory began to fade.

In June, Mr. Anderson decided to move to a nearby assisted living home. But after learning he would have to go to Manhattan to obtain some required documents, he let the idea go.

He kept a baseball bat by the door and a tiny photograph of himself, totemlike, taped above a light switch.

Staying Put in Storm

On Oct. 28, as Hurricane Sandy approached the city, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced a mandatory evacuation for the Rockaways and other low-lying areas. The maintenance crew at the Sand Castle went door to door asking residents if they planned to leave. Many did, but 600 or so others, including some of the neediest, chose to stay, said Mr. Sanchez, the assistant superintendent.

The workers advised them to fill their bathtubs with water; if the power went out, the rooftop water tank, which relied on pumps, would quickly empty. A notice posted by the elevators encouraged tenants to stock up on supplies, including water, medicines, flashlights and a whistle.

The Sand Castle did not have backup generators to keep crucial services running, and the staff did not organize transportation to shelters for residents. They did not force them to go, either. “I’m not the hurricane police,” the superintendent, Mike McGovern, told tenants, he recalled in an interview.

Private owners were not required to make tenants leave, according to a spokeswoman for Mayor Bloomberg. While owners are required to maintain habitable premises for tenants, the expectations in a natural disaster, with many aspects out of their control, are not so clear.

Phil Goldstein, a representative of the Sand Castle’s owners, said managers and employees worked hard to improve conditions for residents throughout the nearly two-week ordeal.

“We have done the best we can to help them,” he said.

One of Mr. Anderson’s sons, Brion Sawyer, 56, who lives in the Bronx in transitional housing for the homeless, said he visited his father two days before the storm, and took him by bus to a bank and a grocery store, where he stocked up on rotisserie chicken, juice, bottled water and ice cream.

Mr. Anderson’s daughter, Ms. Elliott, 63, said she talked to him by phone on Oct. 29, the day of the storm. The water was rising in Arverne, where she lived a few miles west of him. She told him that her son was coming to get her. Mr. Anderson advised her to go somewhere safe “because it looks like it’s going to be a real bad storm.”

“How is it over there?” she asked him.

“It’s windy,” he replied, “but you know we’re higher up, so you know the water wouldn’t bother us.”

She did not question that or ask if he wanted to leave. He was stubborn, she said, adding, “He didn’t like a whole lot of fussing.”

As the storm intensified, the Sand Castle’s towers swayed in the wind. Gusts slapped up ocean spray. By dusk, the small beach below the towers had been swallowed by water, and waves crashed through a balcony atop a bulkhead. Most of the lights along the Boardwalk had gone dark, but one flashed like a strobe as the trees around it shimmied.

The three large windows in Mr. Anderson’s apartment faced away from the ocean, overlooking a small channel. If his blinds were open, he could have watched the lights flicker out in Far Rockaway and around Kennedy International Airport.

After the storm, Mr. Sawyer called his father daily, he said. “Are they taking care of you?” he asked. For nearly a week the answer was no; nobody had come to offer aid. Mr. Anderson fretted over his spoiling groceries and his dwindling water supply.

His radio was drained of batteries. With nothing to do and no lights, he went to bed at sundown. But he reassured his son, who did not visit because he had no car and public transit was suspended.

“I’ll be all right,” he told him.

The Worst Shape

With New York all but shut down after the storm, Kate Balandina, 32, who lives in Brooklyn and makes films, music videos and commercials, had time on her hands. A friend owned a sports bar and restaurant in south Brooklyn, so along with a few others, they began cooking for storm victims. “There were a whole bunch of hungry and lonely people,” Ms. Balandina said. “What other motivation do you need?”

The friends would arrive at the kitchen around 9 a.m. and start preparing comfort food: chicken soup, fish soup, vegetable soup, pasta and pilafs. Word spread on Facebook, and friends of friends came to volunteer or sent donations or offered gasoline, which was in short supply, for the car deliveries. Most of the volunteers were, like Ms. Balandina, Russian-speaking immigrants in their 30s.

They began in Brooklyn, but found that other volunteers were helping there. Next they ventured to Far Rockaway, spending an afternoon at high rises for the elderly managed by a Jewish charity, but they were told their help was not needed because their food was not kosher. Late that day, Nov. 4, they drove 10 blocks east and found the Sand Castle at the far end of the Rockaway Peninsula. “We realized this one is in much worse shape,” Ms. Balandina said.

It was nearly a week after the hurricane. Aside from a few candles in the lobby, it was dark from late afternoon until morning. The towers did not sustain heavy damage, but the Long Island Power Authority had not restored electricity. The manager discovered that the few large generators available from a rental company were going to nursing homes or schools, and the small one acquired by the building’s electrician was never hooked up, out of fear that it might cause a problem when power was restored.

Emergency lights were not working. Nobody had taped flashlights in the corridors and stairwells to help prevent falls; those in the lobby were repeatedly stolen, Mr. Sanchez said. His boss, the superintendent, had left the Sand Castle the day after the storm to attend to his flooded home and had not returned.

Ms. Balandina and the other volunteers quickly learned that dropping off food in the lobby was not enough. To reach the people most in need, they had to climb staircases and knock on every door. The stench was horrific. Toilets were backed up and had to be flushed with water hauled up from the ocean. Some hallways reeked of feces and garbage, and Ms. Balandina and her fellow volunteers were struck by an odor like that of rotting flesh.

She and her friends assumed that government officials would soon take over relief efforts. “They’re going to get to them,” she remembered thinking.

The city’s Buildings Department had already cleared the complex for occupancy, even though it failed to meet guidelines requiring at least one working elevator and a backup power source. A spokesman for the department said its inspectors focused on structural issues after the hurricane.

Day after day, the situation in the high rise appeared unchanged. The senior center there had resumed weekday lunches for clients who could get downstairs, and local politicians had directed other charitable groups to drop off food there. But Ms. Balandina could not believe that the survival of hundreds of people trapped on upper floors seemed to rest on the ability of her ad hoc group to gather volunteers, a task that was growing more difficult as people returned to work.

The fourth day she visited, Nov. 7, Ms. Balandina brought along her video camera. “I didn’t want to make it seem really bad,” she said. “I just wanted to bring people’s attention to it. I didn’t need to exaggerate.”

She posted her film late that night. On camera she appealed to the Red Cross, the National Guard and city officials for help. She wanted, she said, “to ask the question, ‘Why is there nobody else doing something?’ ”

Traveling Fast on the Web

Mike DellaVecchia, 45, a stay-at-home father of five in Philadelphia, heard about the video on Nov. 8 from his wife’s boss in Pennsylvania, Lily Knezevich, who received word of it from a friend, Matt Mendelsohn, in Washington, who had learned of it from his sister, Jennifer Mendelsohn, a writer in Baltimore, who had seen a link posted on Twitter.

Mr. DellaVecchia, who describes himself as “being on the Christian right,” said he had long regretted being unable to help out after the Sept. 11 attacks and felt he had “unfinished business” in his birthplace, New York. He began organizing storm aid. After his wife described the video, he stuffed a minivan with water and food and drove to New York with an acquaintance who spoke Russian, arriving at 7-11 Seagirt the same evening. In the blackness, the apartment complex, he said, “looked like this forbidding gothic castle rising up — it was so spooky.”

The Red Cross, responding to appeals from Ms. Balandina’s fellow volunteers, had dropped off hundreds of food trays in the lobby, but did not appear to have delivered them upstairs. Several maintenance workers locked away crates of water so they would not all disappear, angering some tenants.

Mr. DellaVecchia went door to door with a headlamp. He grew alarmed by the number of people he met with serious health problems. He worried about the knocks that went unanswered, the half-dozen or so doors sealed with police tape (he did not realize they represented deaths predating the storm or apartment repossessions for failing to pay rent), and others with stickers indicating the tenant relied on oxygen.

Most of all, what he perceived to be the smell of death in the hallways haunted him. As he related his experiences to his wife, Lisa, by phone, she posted updates on a Facebook chat. “Mike believes there are many dead bodies in the building,” she wrote. “Nobody’s grandma or grandpa should have to die like this.”

Ms. Knezevich, the friend who had shared the YouTube link, was among several people distressed by the report. She began placing calls to officials the next morning from Pennsylvania.

“I spent the whole day on the phone trying to figure out who’s responsible, who’s going to help these people,” she said. She reached someone at the Red Cross who told her where distribution centers were. She called City Hall, where someone told her she could write the mayor a letter. She reached a person at the Federal Emergency Management Agency who told her it was focused on helping people rebuild, but to call 911 in an emergency. She did and was put through to a dispatcher in Queens, who sent an ambulance.

That afternoon, Nov. 9, a National Guard contingent arrived at the Sand Castle. City officials had finally initiated a door-to-door “knock-knock” campaign with medical teams after receiving reports that thousands of elderly, ill or poor people stuck in their apartments in public and private multistory buildings around the city were in crisis. The Guard members began knocking on apartment doors at the Sand Castle, marking them with an “X” and the number of inhabitants, as they had done on houses after Hurricane Katrina. They wrote “no response” on many. They did not break down doors.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sanchez and the volunteers struggled to keep tabs on the health of the residents. There had been a few reports of Mr. Anderson. One resident who was volunteering told Mr. Sanchez, “The guy with the baseball bat doesn’t want to open the door.” Mr. Sanchez said to try again to give him food.

Another volunteer had reported seeing Mr. Anderson standing outside of his apartment, peering out a corridor window, looking worried. Mr. Sanchez had been reassured to know he was up and moving. Mr. Anderson’s neighbor, Robert Martinez, 53, who was rushing around distributing water to other tenants so they could flush their toilets, had brief exchanges with him the first week after the storm. The older man told Mr. Martinez not to worry about giving him water for his toilet, since he was only urinating. He was not particularly talkative, but Mr. Martinez thought he looked fine.

Other tenants seemed to have more urgent problems. Mr. Sanchez estimates that 60 to 80 Sand Castle residents were taken to hospitals and shelters by ambulances in the days after the storm.

Lavar Little, 32, who is paralyzed as a result of a car accident and lives on the 19th floor, was one of them. Mr. Little said he did not leave the building before the storm because he did not think it would be bad and was afraid of ending up at a nursing home. But two days after Hurricane Sandy, he was out of water and had developed a bedsore. His cellphone battery was dead. A neighbor called 911 for him. After an evaluation at nearby St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, Mr. Little was transferred, as he had feared, to a nursing home.

The St. John’s emergency room, which was operating on partial generator power, was inundated with such patients. When doctors tried to send some of those who were stable but needed attention to a city medical shelter, they were returned to the hospital, said Dr. Rajiv Prasad, chairman of emergency medicine. “The hospital kept growing and getting fuller and fuller and fuller,” he said.

‘God’s Work’

A relief team organized by the bicycling group Cyclists International was drawn to the Sand Castle by Ms. Balandina’s video, which they learned about from Mr. DellaVecchia and his wife, whom they had met on Facebook. The cyclists went to investigate Mr. DellaVecchia’s concerns, and met several Sand Castle residents who reported hearing that people had died. On Nov. 9, the cyclists posted a story on their Web site. A link went out on Facebook: “Four dead at complex in Rockaway, Queens,” it said.

Rumor turned to fact on the Internet. “Four fatalities confirmed in 711 Rockaway Bldg,” a public health forecasting company, Ascel Bio, said on its Web site. “We are very saddened to report 4 confirmed fatalities at the 711 Bldg reported earlier,” Ascel’s lead investigator, Dr. James M. Wilson V, wrote from Colorado. He added details from the cyclists’ report: “In one case, an elderly couple died together without access to water x5-6 days they asphyxiated while trying to warm themselves with a gas stove.”

Looking back, Mr. DellaVecchia said, “God help me, I never said I knew there were dead people there.” But he was not sorry to read the cyclists story. “If their report caused people to get there,” he said, “then that’s excusable.”

Another report flew across Facebook, written by a New York D.J. who goes by Max Mayfield. “Wow im shocked from the news I just got!! At 711 Beach 6 in FAR ROCKWAYS they carried out 3 dead bodies!!!” Mr. Mayfield, who had volunteered at the Sand Castle earlier in the week with Ms. Balandina, had heard about the bodies from a friend who had heard it from someone else and thought he had seen one.

Cheers erupted at the Sand Castle when the lights came back on the night of Nov. 10. The utility had restored power just 40 minutes before two immense generators provided by the city arrived, Mr. Sanchez said. Meyer Brecher, the senior manager, said he had spent days calling the utility company, as well as city, state and federal officials for help restoring power. “The only one I didn’t get to is Obama,” he said.

Some officials dispute receiving some of the Sand Castle’s requests or the timing of them, though they acknowledge they were overwhelmed by the demands across the city.

Mr. Sanchez worked to bring back running water and heat in the days that followed. He had not gone home to his children or taken a day off in two weeks, instead staying in the complex where he had worked for more than a quarter-century. Heavyset and middle-aged, he had climbed staircases and placed numerous calls for help. And he maintained a handwritten, often-changing list of some 200 apartment numbers where the most vulnerable still resided.

Shortly before the power came back, volunteers mentioned that no one in Apartment 13C had responded when they offered food. Mr. Sanchez asked a visiting nurse, who was on her way to give an insulin shot to one of Mr. Anderson’s neighbors, to knock on his door. There was still no answer. Mr. Sanchez sent maintenance workers up on the morning of Nov. 12 to check on a few apartments including Mr. Anderson’s, but there was still no reply.

Later that day, Mr. Sanchez went upstairs with a police officer. There were no National Guard markings on the doors of the 13th floor in Building B, suggesting the corridor may have been missed. The two unlocked Mr. Anderson’s door and called for him. Mr. Sanchez saw bare feet sticking out from the other side of the bed. It was not the first time he had come upon a scene like this.

Mr. Anderson’s neighbors were distraught over news of his death. Mr. Martinez lighted a candle in front of his door and spoke about him at a tenants association meeting. He blamed the owners, who did not send a representative to the meeting, for not doing more to help the elderly. He suspected the owners wanted to fill the Sand Castle with younger, more affluent tenants.

Others said that Mr. Anderson, because of his health problems, should have left before the hurricane. The room, full of mostly elderly residents with wheelchairs, walkers and canes, erupted as they argued over whose action or inaction — that of the government, the building owners and managers, the tenants — was to blame for the suffering they endured.

“That’s God’s work,” a woman said.

“What about the old man?” Mr. Martinez asked, referring to Mr. Anderson. “God did that?”

“It just happened!” she shouted. “Maybe it’s a wake-up call for everyone.”

A Visit Postponed

The police notified Mark Elliott, one of Mr. Anderson’s grandsons, of his death. His phone number was programmed into Mr. Anderson’s cellphone. Mr. Elliott screamed, because he and his mother had been in the Rockaways inspecting her flood-damaged house in Arverne the weekend before Mr. Anderson’s body was found.

It had occurred to Mr. Elliott, “We should go by Grandpa.” But they had not, even though the Sand Castle was only three and a half miles away. Their lives, too, had been in chaos. Mr. Anderson’s daughter, Ms. Elliott, a retired Social Security worker, had been widowed in the spring and now had lost nearly everything she owned.

The storm had flooded Coney Island, where she had taken shelter with her other son, whose car was destroyed, and they had retreated to his home in Pennsylvania. Although they had not heard from Mr. Anderson since the storm, they had assumed he was fine, as he had been after Tropical Storm Irene. They were not in regular touch with Mr. Sawyer, Ms. Elliott’s brother, who had been trying to reach Mr. Anderson since he had last spoken with him Nov. 9.

Mr. Anderson’s relatives attended his funeral on Nov. 21. Two soldiers stood at attention, one on each end of his coffin. They lifted the American flag that covered it and folded it neatly, then placed it in Ms. Elliott’s hands.

Later, two of Mr. Anderson’s grandsons returned to Far Rockaway to clean his apartment. They found a donated white blanket, unopened, suggesting he had found other ways to keep warm. Two days’ worth of prepared meals sat on a counter, plastic-wrapped and uneaten. The brothers retrieved some of their grandfather’s few possessions, including a box of family photos and his precious Louisville Slugger. They left behind the recliner where he watched the Mets, along with his crucifix and a Bible on the top shelf of his closet.

Next to the chair was a table with clues to Mr. Anderson’s final days: mail-order catalogs for vitamins, pill bottles, some empty, and a flashlight. A pile of Christmas cards sat with a handwritten list of names and addresses of each child, grandchild and great-grandchild.

Posted on the door outside, FedEx notices indicated missed deliveries days after his body was found. They were for a set of miniature perfumes he had paid for by check. It was a gift, no doubt, for someone he loved.

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