Upper East Side Man Hailed as Hero for Saving Taxi Driver from Drowning
UPPER EAST SIDE—Jon Candelaria hasn't gotten used to people calling him a hero just yet.
As word spread that the 6-foot-5 Candelaria waded into chest-deep water and carried to safety a taxi driver who was trapped in his vehicle at the height of Hurricane Sandy Monday, residents at the Isaacs Houses on the Upper East Side have responded accordingly.
When the 25-year-old employee of the Hard Rock Cafe's accounting department walked into the lobby of his building at 1830 First Ave. Tuesday, a crowd of people gathered there spontaneously broke into applause. His mother and grandmother can't stop gushing about his heroics.
"Who else would have done that?" said Anthony Severino, 22, a student and resident at the Isaacs Houses who witnessed the rescue from his terrace. "He's got my respect. I tell him that."
Candelaria, the father of a 2-year-old daughter and a student at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in East Elmhurst, just brushes off the praise.
"I would do it for anybody. It doesn't matter who you are; you're a human being," he said.
The rescue began at about 8 p.m. on Monday. Candelaria was riding out the storm in the seventh-floor apartment that he shares with his family at the Stanley Isaacs Houses, a New York City Housing Authority development located at East 93rd Street and First Avenue.
His window in one of the three 24-story buildings in the complex faces the East River and the FDR Drive. Candelaria was drinking coffee and looking out of his window at the storm surge. He watched as a graffiti tag on a ramp wall of the FDR Drive disappeared beneath murky water.
Candelaria was still marveling at Hurricane Sandy's fury when he noticed an SUV taxi driving north onto the entrance of the FDR Drive at 96th Street. Despite the heavy floodwaters, the car kept inching forward.
Soon, the raging waters lifted the car up and spun it 180 degrees.
"That's when my mom flipped out," Candelaria said.
Rita Callahan, 47, a salesperson who lives in Candelaria's building on the fifth floor, was also drawn to her rattling windows.
"I heard this screaming, and I said someone was in trouble," said Callahan who also ran downstairs.
That's when Candelaria sprung into action. As his mother frantically dialed 911 for help, he slid on a pair of shorts and his jacket and ran outside.
"911 was overloaded. If we had waited for help, he would have died," he said.
Walking down the back ramp of his apartment building, Candelaria already noticed the water rising over sandbags put there to protect the building. The water was rising above his ankles after just a few more steps.
When the water rose above his knees, Candelaria began to shiver. It felt like the water was 40 degrees. The further he walked, the higher the water rose. He could feel debris drifting past him in the churning waters.
By the time he began wading toward the taxi, the water was reaching up to his chest. He thought about his 2-year-old daughter, Allison Jade, but kept going. He knew his family would take care of her if something happened to him.
"When I got to the driver, the water was up to his chin. He looked like he was praying, preparing to die. He looked like he knew it was his time to go," said Candelaria.
When Candelaria banged on the window, it took the man a few seconds to realize he was being rescued. Suddenly, the driver snapped back to life.
Candelaria discovered that the taxi door was stuck. He pulled as hard as he could from the outside but it wouldn't budge. And then Candelaria decided to enlist the driver's help.
With the winds from Hurricane Sandy blowing furiously—meteorologists say Sandy brought a record 14-foot storm surge to parts of Manhattan along with winds as high as 95 miles per hour— Candelaria told the driver to push the door from the inside while he pulled from the outside on the count of three.
When Candelaria reached three, the winds suddenly stopped blowing for a few seconds.
"As soon as I hit three, it seemed like everything became calm," he said.
The door swung open and Candelaria hefted the man over his shoulder like he was carrying an oversized sandbag.
Upstairs, Severino was in shock at what he was seeing.
"Is that a cab? Why is there a cab there?" he thought to himself. "Is that a person? That's a person out there in all that water."
The driver was small, maybe 5-feet-1 , but carrying him through the water was not an easy task.
"The man had started freaking out, and the water was strong. It was moving fast," Candelaria said. "Even if he had managed to get out of the car, I don't think he would have made it because he was so short."
But he managed to carry the man to higher ground. Callahan arrived just after Candelaria exited the flood waters.
"I said, 'Oh my God, you are a hero. That water was churning. It could have swept you away,'" Callahan recalled. "I was prepared to run into the water, but I'm not sure I could have done what he did."
Candelaria carried the man to the lobby of his building.
"He just kept saying 'thank you, thank you,'" Candelaria said. "He was in shock. He said he wanted to get home to his family."
Police soon arrived and whisked the man away before anyone could find out his name. Callahan snapped a cell phone photo of the unnamed driver and Candelaria in the lobby. The taxi driver is wearing a purple shirt and a beige jacket and smiling. He barely reaches Candelaria's shoulder.
Rose Bergin, 57, a tenant leader at Isaacs Houses and the Manhattan South District Chair of the Citywide Council of Presidents, said Candelaria deserves praise despite his efforts at humility.
"I remember him when he was just a baby in the carriage. Now he's a hero who grew up right here in public housing," she said.
Now Callahan and Bergin are working to find the driver so that Candelaria can get the credit they and everyone else who hears the story feel he deserves as a hero.
"It was brave. When it comes to water, people panic and can take you down with them," said Severino.
Candelaria, who wants to build airplanes for a living one day, still blushes when Callahan and Bergin call him a hero. His thoughts are more about the driver.
"I'm not a hero. What was I supposed to do? Sit at home and watch a man drown and take pictures to post on Facebook?" said Candelaria. "That's not me."