9/11 Memorials Swept Away During Sandy Find Shelter With Loved Ones
ROCKAWAY BEACH — The morning after Hurricane Sandy ripped through his neighborhood last fall, Lou Romas left the darkness of his apartment and began to walk around to survey the damage.
He made his way through the destruction to Beach 92nd Street along Rockaway Beach and found a set of old wooden stairs to the now-destroyed boardwalk were still standing.
What was missing was a plaque honoring his friend Stephen Belson, a firefighter at Ladder 24 in Chelsea, surfer and former lifeguard who died in the 9/11 attacks, one of several memorials along the boardwalk that were swept away in the historic storm.
Romas found the plaque for Belson — who died at 51 after a 22-year career in the FDNY — in knee-deep water under a pile of rubble, still bolted to a pole, about 100 yards from where it once stood on "Bells' Beach," named after Belson.
“It was a tough day out there,” Romas said, adding he searched for 45 minutes before finding it. "I thought it was lost."
Belson's memorial is among the many that have been found by local residents and sheltered until they can be displayed on the boardwalk when it is rebuilt.
“It’ll go up somewhere, somehow, someplace," said John Maguire, a retired Battalion Chief from the 54th Battalion in Queens, who was Belson's best friend. "We just don’t know where yet.”
Maguire, who met Belson as a lifeguard in the 1970s, and later joined the FDNY with him, has been safeguarding Belson's memorial pending a new home. Maguire said the plan is to restore the sign and put it back on the beach, whenever the boardwalk is rebuilt.
After Sept. 11, memorials to those who lost their lives popped up all over the city, on everything from benches to highways. On the Rockaway peninsula, which was home to 74 people who died, many of the lost were remembered along the more than 5-mile stretch of boardwalk.
The Parks Department does not have a full list of the memorials because some weren't city-sanctioned, but a spokesman said the department will discuss future placement with any family looking to have a memorial on the new boardwalk.
Construction on the new boardwalk is scheduled to begin by the end of this year, according to the department.
Belson's plaque was found intact, although a piece of the memorial — the piece of wood with an etched photo of a smiling Belson — was gone.
While Belson's family doesn't live in Rockaway, a large circle of friends, including Romas, looked after his memorial throughout the years.
Belson started as a lifeguard in the 1970s, at a time when the beach had eroded so much that the lifeguards had to watch the water from the boardwalk. That's where Romas met him as a 15-year-old kid.
"I met Bells diving off the boardwalk into the ocean," Romas said. "Bells would tell us we'd get hurt diving off but we told him, 'This is our beach, we've been doing this for years!'"
It would become known as Bells' Beach after he spent years protecting it and surfing it.
A memorial to Richie Allen, a firefighter in Ladder 15 in Manhattan who died on Sept. 11, was washed away from its home on Beach 91st Street in the storm.
During the hurricane, his sister Maggie Allen and mother, Gail Allen, 66, were rescued by an NYPD boat after a fire erupted around the corner from their home on Beach 130th.
After spending the night at a nearby Coast Guard station, they returned home to survey the destruction and find out what happened to Richie's memorial.
“They took one look at the flooded basement and decided they had to get the plaque,” Gail said.
Three of Allen's siblings — Luke, 32, Maggie, 31, and Matt, 28 — left the destruction of their own home and made their way down to the beach. Richie Allen grew up surfing Beach 91st Street, known around the city and the country for its waves, and in 2004 the stretch was renamed "Richie Allen's Way" in his honor.
During the storm, the portion of the boardwalk with the "Richie Allen's Way" sign and a plaque floated halfway up Beach 91st Street.
“Richie went surfing again,” said one of his best friends, Christian Stathis, who lives on Beach 91st and co-owns Boarders Surf Shop. “He caught a nice wave halfway down the block.”
The Allens pried the metal plaque off the lamppost with help from some of Richie’s old friends and tools from their flooded garage. They brought it home to their family, and this past Sept. 8 they hung it up at the annual Richie Allen Memorial Surf Classic at Beach 97th Street.
The plaque is now being kept at Boarders while the Allens wait to find out plans for the new boardwalk.
“It would have been nice to be down there,” Maggie said Sunday, pointing to Richie's beach six blocks away. “But it’s about the young kids enjoying what Richie loved to do.”