ROCKAWAY BEACH — As a surfer, Pete Brady knew that if he could see white caps on a wave from the balcony of his first-floor apartment, the ocean was waist high or “Rockaway surfable,” he said.
But as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the peninsula last October, he was stunned by what he saw.
The brunt of the storm was still hours away on Oct. 29 and the waves already looked massive from his home on Beach 107th Street, so he took out his camera and began taking pictures.
An NYPD van was driving into the frame around 1 p.m., and he knew he could use it to show perspective. A few snaps later, he had a photo that became an iconic image of the power of the historic storm.
“The way the set lined up — I didn’t know how it lined up so perfectly until I saw the back of the camera,” he said.
“The van, the waves, the sign, the traffic light swaying. The whole thing just came together.”
Brady, 29, who joined the FDNY in 2005 and works in Ladder 174 in Flatbush, has spent his whole life on the Rockaway peninsula and decided to ride the storm out with his wife, Kerry, who was pregnant with their first child. They were joined that day by two friends, whose ground-floor bungalow had already flooded the morning of the storm.
After taking the photo, just one of 1,000 he shot that day, Brady — who was always into photography, and became more serious about the hobby in 2003, capturing friends' weddings and surfing shots — knew it would make an impact.
“I threw it on Facebook for information purposes,” he said. “I wanted to put it up to show perspective between this and last year’s storm [Hurricane Irene].”
Sandy was very different than Irene, with its massive 14-foot storm surge and the three separate fires that were sparked during the storm on the Rockaway peninsula. Later that night, Brady could see an orange glow through the darkness from his balcony.
He went out twice to fight the six-alarm fire in a row of stores and apartments on Rockaway Beach Boulevard seven blocks from his apartment. In fact, there weren’t any fire trucks to battle the blaze when they first went out at 10:30 p.m.
When he and a friend went back out closer to midnight, the blaze was still “ripping,” he said.
While wading through thigh-high water, he was hit in the knee by a large chunk of the boardwalk; He and other firefighters had to feel around in the darkness for fire hydrants.
Brady and other firefighters — who came from ladders in Brooklyn and Queens — stood on Rockaway Beach Boulevard for hours, fighting the blaze and preventing it from spreading.
“I stood like that until the sun came up,” he said.
At daylight, he saw the damage the historic storm wrought on his neighborhood. It was a reality that was at first too much for him to document, he said.
“As soon as everything happened, I put the camera down,” he said. “I didn’t want to take any more pictures.”
Brady was without power for weeks and focused on recovery, temporarily relocating to Staten Island and still working at his Brooklyn firehouse.
He didn’t realize how meaningful his photo had become until he received a call from the organizers of the 12/12/12 Concert, which brought together a group of stars including Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel for the relief effort.
“They wanted to use my photo when Eddie Vedder and Roger Waters were playing,” he said. The photo was later used in a recruitment ad for the NYPD and in the city's special report on resiliency.
A cropped version of the picture — showing the large wave — is also on the front of the city’s new emergency preparedness pamphlets.
And nearly a year after he took the photo, it will be one of many from his collection being displayed at a solo show at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club starting Oct. 18.
Brady picked up the camera again after the long recovery from the hurricane, capturing some photos of the slow rebuild of the beach and boardwalk, photos of his daughter, Mara, and more photos of white-capped waves — although none as high as what he captured last October.
“I’m lucky that I got some documentation of it,” he said, although he modestly added later that "time will tell if it is an important part of history."
Brady's solo show debuts Friday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, Beach 87th Street and the Rockaway Freeway, Rockaway Beach. To purchase photos from his collection, visit PBradyPhotography.com.