At 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 –– one day before Hurricane Sandy whipped across the tristate area, causing billions of dollars in damage –– Michael Gargan, first assistant chief of the Merrick Fire Department, ordered his volunteers to their respective firehouses. They would sleep at their stations, hoping the storm would blow over but ready to respond to a call at a moment’s notice.
The next morning, the volunteers quickly realized that Sandy would be no average storm, no mistake by the weather forecasters, who were predicting that this would be the Big One.
By 9 a.m. on Oct. 29, the department was inundated with phone calls from homeowners reporting downed power lines and flooded homes. The thing was, the storm hadn’t even reached Long Island yet. Sandy’s powerful outer bands lashed the South Shore, knocking down trees and power lines, and a heavy tidal surge at high tide forced water through storm drains up onto the streets south of Merrick Road.
Sandy spent the rest of that Monday churning up the East Coast, gaining power as it went. All hell broke loose when floodwaters reached three to six feet across much of south Merrick, and the storm’s 85-mph wind gusts toppled trees like matchsticks. Many residents had evacuated to higher ground. Many had not.
In either case, people battened down as best they could to ride out the storm. But the members of the Merrick F.D. did not. They went out into the tempest, risking limb and life to extinguish the numerous fires that broke out as electrical systems and home generators, fried by saltwater, shorted out. At the same time, department volunteers said, they felt a solemn obligation to evacuate the neediest residents who had remained in the flood zone –– the elderly and small children.
And so, the Merrick Herald proudly names the volunteers of the Merrick Fire Department our 2012 People of the Year. They demonstrated an astonishing level of commitment to the community as well as mind-bending bravery.
A night of heroism
Department spokesman Ron Luparello, a former Merrick fire chief, said the acts of heroism performed by the 60 firefighters on duty during the storm were too numerous to count.