September 16, 2013
By Marc Bussanich
Belle Harbor, Queens—Tommy Woods was home with his family watching TV when he heard water pouring into the basement of his house on 130th Street in Far Rockaway. The water was rising so fast that all his tools he placed onto tables to keep dry were floating in a pool of water. There was no time to save the expensive wares; he had to figure out a way to save his 85-year old mother, wife and two sons. Watch Video
Woods stands over an empty lot on 130th Street in Belle Harbor, Queens where his house once stood. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy crashed through, engulfing his home with 6 feet of racing water before catching fire and burning to the ground. Woods is a 26-year veteran with the fire department and has been a lieutenant at Ladder Company 154 since 2006. Some of his neighbors are current or retired firemen.
"We were all home and the water just raced up. I could smell smoke and then I got a call from a buddy in the fire house that there was a fire nearby, so we had to evacuate. It was hard to make out where exactly the fire was because it was completely dark," said Woods.
He and his two sons quickly donned their wetsuits to help his elderly mom board a surfboard and guide her to safety to the end of the block that hadn't flooded. He told his sons to stay with their grandmother before he headed back into the chest-deep water to save stranded neighbors desperately calling for help from their porches. It was still hard to see, even with fires engulfing several homes on the block from fiery ambers raining down on them.
Woods was able to transport almost 30 people from the raging waters and burning homes on 130th Street to safety. Luckily he wore a wetsuit because the water was freezing cold and might have suffered hypothermia and not been able to rescue as many neighbors as he did. He was award by the Fire Department of New York for his valor, being honored with a Medal of Honor.
In all his years battling fires and rescuing people, Woods never had to wade through Atlantic Ocean water flooding his block. He doesn't explain his herculean efforts that day with pride but with reserve. He credits some of his neighbors for their courage.
"The outcome was good that everybody was OK. But there were people all over Rockaway that were really stepping up and helping their neighbors; that’s what makes it a great place to live. People looking out for each other," Woods said.
Tommy chokes up when he recounts his experiences the night of the storm. When asked if it's too difficult to talk about, he quickly deflects the question by again crediting others for their courage.
"It was nice to receive the award, but there were a lot of other people that night who were heroes; it's just another example of how good the people are in this community," said Woods.
Tommy is not one to complain. Almost a year since Sandy, he's still waiting for his home to be rebuilt. He thought by now he'd be kicking back in his new home and grilling hamburgers in the back yard. But new regulations post-Sandy require home owners raise their new homes higher off the ground and it seems the Department of Buildings' new code and zoning standards are complicating rebuilding.
He remains upbeat however.
"I'm cautiously optimistic they'll start building soon. I'm sure it won't be long now," Woods says.
When asked why the rebuilding is taking so long, he remains deferential.
"I don't want to throw anybody under the bus."
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