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The Battle for Breezy

October 27, 2014

The water was rising in the clubhouse, the highest piece of land in the Breezy Point peninsula. Eighteen volunteer firefighters had taken refuge there with 41 civilians they rescued from super-storm Sandy throughout the day.

In the firehouse next door, water had risen to the six-foot mark. Although they had all been warned about the surge of water, they were unprepared when in just five minutes water had risen from their ankles to their chests.

Meanwhile, winds off the ocean were blowing smoke and embers from burning, mostly wood-frame, houses. The fires were set off by sparks as homes filled with gas because the mains had not been turned off by the utility company.

Outside it was nightfall — 8:45. The question for those inside the clubhouse was: Do we remain here and risk asphyxiation from the smoke or do we wait for the surge to pass and the waters to recede to make our escape?

They chose the latter. Miraculously, it seemed, volunteer fire chief Marty Ingram had timed it perfectly.

But there was another potential problem. What of the volunteer fire department’s two custom-made fire trucks, Big Jack and Sand Flea? Would they start up? Or would the rising salt water have flooded them?

Another miracle. The trucks started up.

A few minutes later, after dropping off the civilians at a nearby market, the volunteers drove Sand Flea to the promenade, where fires from the burning homes were raging. The wind was pouring in off the ocean and the volunteers fought the fires with the wind at their backs. If the wind shifted, they were in trouble because there was no room to turn the truck around, and if they happened to step off the promenade, they would sink into holes, some of them cesspools.

Their luck held. The wind remained at their backs as the storm raged and the volunteers were able to fight the fires through the night. They saved perhaps 100 homes. And, as it turned out, there were no deaths.

This is the story of Hurricane Sandy as told from the front lines by volunteer firefighter and NYPD cop Sebastian Danese, the son of retired lieutenant Sebastian John Danese and nephew of the late Gus Danese, the former head of the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association. The younger Danese’s self-published book is titled “The Battle of Breezy Point.” It is detailed and gritty and refutes some of what the city administrators were saying at the time, particularly about looting. Unlike what city officials said, there was plenty of looting, primarily by men arriving in small boats from Brighton Beach, according to Danese.

In all, 125 houses burned down. On the second anniversary of Sandy this week, two-thirds have been rebuilt. This has occurred despite what Danese said has been haggling by insurance companies, price gouging for repairs, disappointment with such relief agencies as the Red Cross and FEMA, and the usual flotsam of human greed.

His story, however, is a testament to the courage of those who stayed and saved.

WAS IT TERRORISM OR RACISM? The so-called terrorist who attacked four rookie cops with an ax may have been motivated less by radical Islam than by hatred of whites.

At least, that is what his father says.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton had described Zale Thompson’s unprovoked and targeted attack on the cops as a “terrorist act,” which Bratton said was not linked to any organized terror group.

But Thompson’s father, Ralph Thompson, offered another motive for last week’s attack to The New York Post.

“He wanted white people to pay for all that slavery and all that racism,” Thompson said of his 32-year-old son, who was shot dead at the scene in Jamaica. The younger Thompson slashed police officer Dennis Healy, 25, in the head with his ax and officer Joseph Meeker, 24, in the arm.

“I think he committed suicide — and he was taking one of y’all with him,” the elder Thompson said. “He just said, ‘They [whites] have to pay for all their unfairness.’”

Whether Ralph Thompson was expressing his son’s feeling or his own is could not be immediately determined.

Whatever Zane Thompson’s motives — he was a recent convert to Islam and had posted anti-American rants on Facebook and YouTube — what is known about him is that his life was on a downward trajectory.

Involuntarily discharged from the Navy in California in 2003, he had six arrests in Oxnard, California. He moved back to New York, first to the East New York apartment where he had grown up, and then back and forth between his parents’ home in Queens.

According to law enforcement officials, he spent hours browsing radical websites connected to the Islamic State, al-Qaida and al-Shabaab, the Somali-based militant Islamic group, leaving comments on Facebook and YouTube that attacked Christians and Jews.

“If the Zionists and the Crusaders had never invaded and colonized the Islamic lands after WWI, then there would be no need for jihad!” a person named Zane Thompson wrote on a YouTube video. “Which is better, to sit around and do nothing, or to jihad.”

In another post, he wrote, “America’s military might is strong abroad but they have never faced an internal mass revolt…. We are scattered and decentralized, we can use this as an advantage. They are centralized and strong, which can be exploited as a weakness.”

Thompson’s attack came a day after a similarly unprovoked shooting spree in the Canadian Parliament by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau — a Canadian-born, self-radicalized Muslim whose life was also on a downward slide.

Perhaps, in retrospect, Canadian law enforcement might have identified and monitored Zehaf-Bibeau as a potential terrorist after he attempted to leave Canada for Syria to join the Islamic State.

But how do law enforcement agencies monitor a “home-grown” and “lone-wolf” future killer such as Thompson if he hasn’t been identified as such?

Intensive monitoring of jihadi websites? Establishing relationships with the community where he lives or works? If Bratton and crew are making efforts in these or other directions, they are not saying.

But given the anger and distrust from past attempts to infiltrate mosques and other Muslim institutions, the latter won’t be easy to do.

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Copyright © 2014 Leonard Levitt