Each morning, Gaetano Antonacci commutes from Lindenhurst to Far Rockaway, where he teaches at Middle School 53, a routine that includes driving through Long Beach’s West End.
But there was nothing routine about Antonacci’s drive on the morning of Feb. 15. As the 27-year-old headed west on Park Street in East Atlantic Beach and came to Rochester Street in his Honda Accord at 7:21 a.m., Antonacci said he saw something in the road.
“I remember … swerving to try to avoid whatever object it was,” he said. “I couldn’t make out what it was, but I guess at the time I figured it was better to swerve than to hit whatever it was. I don’t remember the impact — I just remember my car flipping.”
Antonacci said that when he cut the wheel, he hit an unoccupied parked vehicle and his car overturned. He remained trapped in the wreck for about 20 minutes as first responders from Long Beach rushed to the scene and worked to remove him from the car.
“I remember that I was upside down and I remember someone asking me if I was able to open the door — the door was obviously above me,” he recalled, adding that several passersby ran over to help. “I think there were three or four people who stayed with me until these guys were able to get there. I remember them throwing me a blanket and them telling me to keep my eyes closed because they had to cut me out of the car.”
The Long Beach Fire Department said that Antonacci’s vehicle had flipped on its side in the middle of the road. More than a dozen members of the LBFD responded to scene, and crews rescued Antonacci by cutting open his front windshield in about 14 minutes, an operation led by Assistant Chief Jake Jacobi.
“The firefighters took whatever actions necessary to extricate him through the windshield of the car,” said Fire Commissioner Scott Kemins, who was among those on the scene. “We did have a firefighter-paramedic in the car with him.”
Antonacci was rushed to South Nassau Communities Hospital in stable condition, but was not seriously injured. No other injuries were reported.
“Anytime you get a positive outcome from an accident like that, somebody is definitely looking after him and somebody is helping us,” Kemins said. “Our job is to help people and mitigate the situation with no or as little injury as possible.”
After the incident, Antonacci thanked the firefighters and good Samaritans on Facebook.
“It’s a miracle that I made it to the hospital without a scratch,” he wrote. “Moving forward, I will wake up every morning, thankful for the life I live. I never had a chance to say thank you, or even look certain people in the eye who saved my life that morning.”
On Sunday, Antonacci was given that chance, when State Sen. Todd Kaminsky honored the Long Beach firefighters involved in the rescue with proclamations at a ceremony at Fire Department headquarters.
“In an extraordinary fashion, we’re standing here, next to this man —with I don’t think a scratch on his body — thanks to the amazing and timely work of the firemen who are here,” said Kaminsky, who was joined by City Council Vice President Chumi Diamond and Councilman John Bendo. “We owe a debt of gratitude to the first responders who put their lives and health on the line everyday. I am thankful for the Long Beach Fire Department’s swift response in rescuing Gaetano and I commend them for their good work.”
“Today's recognition makes me proud to be the chief of this world-class department, and I thank Senator Kaminsky for honoring our brave first responders who reacted so quickly,” added Fire Chief Joseph Miller.
Antonacci — a dean and physical education and health teacher at the school — was joined by his mother, Catherine, and said that he is now “living my life to the fullest because you never know what day could be your last.”
“Thanks to you guys, I’ll be able to go to work on Monday and teach my kids,” he said, adding that he was grateful no one else was injured in the incident. “My mom still has a son, my sister still has a brother and without you guys, I really wouldn’t be here today. It’s hard to say an accident like that can help someone, but it changed the way I view life. I truly feel blessed and lucky that you were all in my corner that morning.”