By DENNIS WASZAK JR., Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — I was the first to cry.
Not my wife. Not our three kids.
I was standing in our pitch-black basement as water streamed through the broken windows like a waterfall. A bathtub drain gurgled, the slimy sewage quickly pooling in an ominous mess. Just eight weeks after we'd bought our dream house — three bedrooms, big kitchen, pool, white fence and a finished basement — Superstorm Sandy was ripping it apart with a fury that was hard to comprehend, along with the rest of our Staten Island neighborhood.
EDITOR'S NOTE — AP Sports Writer Dennis Waszak and his family had moved into their Staten Island 'dream house' just weeks before Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of the New York City borough. These are his recollections a week after the storm hit and upended life for Waszak, his wife and their three children.
At 9 p.m. Monday, I sent my sister Christina a text message saying our basement was still dry.
Minutes later that all changed. The man cave I couldn't wait to show off to my buddies, the one I'd spent hours working on, was fast being covered in rancid brown muck, beginning with what was once a white carpet. Watching it methodically swallow up the mementos that took us a lifetime to gather, I lost it.
Family photos, clothes, thousands of CDs, furniture. Thirty years of Topps baseball cards my dad gave me each and every Christmas. A copy of nearly every story I'd ever written — as a budding sports reporter at Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, from the Super Bowl and World Series, during 16-plus years with The Associated Press — all gone.
My wife, Daria, urged me to stop, if only for the sake of our kids. I ran up the stairs toward the living room, struggling to compose myself. Behind me, all the while, the sludge kept rising. At 9:16 p.m., I texted my sister again: "The basement is completely covered in raw sewage. It's destroyed."
Some 10 hours earlier, I was on a conference call with New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, hearing him describe the challenges his disappointing team still faced. Now I was swept up in the biggest natural disaster to hit the New York area in decades, wondering how to protect my family.
It's funny the places your mind wanders sometimes, even in moments of crisis. So the fact that my mother's name is Sandy was at least good for a rueful smile. Even she can't believe now how much death and destruction will be attached to it for, well, forever.
Our neighborhood in the Eltingville section of Staten Island was designated a Zone C area, at very low risk for evacuation during a storm. That's why so few of us were alarmed earlier in the day, when the water from a creek that was part of a planned park poured out onto Arthur Kill Road and up our street at high tide. We thought that would be the worst of it.
Then the wind began whipping up, right around 4 p.m., and that picture-postcard white fence was blown to pieces. Soon after, with everything else we could tie down, board up or cover already secured, and roof tiles flying around like the occasional Frisbee, my neighbors and I headed inside to ride the storm out.
The power was on for two more hours, gone just as Daria was cooking dinner for the kids. They thought it was fun to eat and play by candlelight. But I looked out the window, saw the water from the creek halfway up the street, and it struck me that Sandy hadn't even really hit yet. Then came a frantic knock at the door.
"Dennis!" yelled a neighbor. "Your house is leaking gas!"
The hissing outside was louder than the shrill howl of the wind. A man I'd never seen before was walking around in the storm, heard the leak and smelled the gas. Out of nowhere, a neighbor showed up with a wrench and shut off the main valve. Someone else called National Grid and three minutes later, two workers from the power company turned up to make sure everything was locked down.
I'm still not sure who the first of those guardian angels was, but I promised myself to find out soon. When I do, I'm going to hug him. But there were still more pressing concerns first.
Around 7 p.m., our next-door neighbor, a sweet Italian grandmother named Grace, ran outside crying that the water in her basement was already a few feet high. Ours was still dry. But the water rushing faster and faster up the street now licked at the door of Daria's car in the driveway. I grabbed the keys and drove five blocks, parking it up on a hill. Then I jogged back home, with rain pelting my face, my arms over my head to protect myself from the tree branches swirling around, and moved my car. When I returned the second time, the water was even with the first step of our house. And it kept coming.