KIPS BAY — Herminia St. John survived a wild storm decades ago in her native Panama when the wind propelled a piece of metal that gashed her leg.
She endured a long separation from her young children when she left Panama for New York to work as a housekeeper, then as a cook, earning enough money to fund one child’s airfare each year while she slowly reunited her family in America.
St. John then thrived in the city, advancing from a cook in Bellevue Hospital’s kitchen to supervisor over a 30-year career, during which she taught herself English and earned U.S. citizenship.
Later, she battled diabetes, lung and heart ailments, and a stroke in 2004, even while devoting herself to her seven children, 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
But when Hurricane Sandy struck Monday evening, choking off power in the 33-story apartment building by East 26th Street where the 75-year-old St. John was bedridden, her oxygen machine stopped.
Finally, St. John had found a hardship even she couldn’t overcome — but she met it with her usual grit.
“She called on me. She gave me a hug, a kiss,” said her daughter, Elsa St. John, 54.
Then her mother asked to be turned toward the window.
“She said her goodbyes, and she went,” Elsa said.
Herminia St. John’s death Monday came after her family struggled frantically to save her, they explained.
Immediately after the electricity cut out, Elsa and her mother’s live-in aide turned on a backup oxygen tank. But that sprang a leak, which the family struggled to close in the darkness.
They called 911 repeatedly, but could not reach an operator.
Finally, St. John’s grandson, Claudio St. John, 31, barreled down 22 flights of stairs and ran to nearby Bellevue Hospital, his grandmother’s old workplace.
Once there, it took him about 45 minutes to convince staff at the overwhelmed hospital to dispatch an emergency crew, the family said.
Meanwhile, a neighbor ran outside the apartment building and flagged down a cop, who also could not reach an EMS dispatcher, according to the family and neighbor, Joann Davis.
When two EMS workers finally arrived at the building and hustled up the unlit stairwell to the apartment, they did not have an oxygen tank and had to rush outside to get one, the family said.
At 10:30 p.m., they returned to the apartment to find St. John had died.
“It’s devastating to lose her with all the fighting,” said Davis, 57. “It’s totally unjust.”
On Wednesday, the building still lacked power. Residents lugged jugs of water and canned food up the pitch-black stairwell, flashlights in hand.
On the 22nd floor, St. John’s relatives and friends sat around a red candle placed on a dinner plate and listened to music trickle from a battery-powered radio, still “shell-shocked” by Monday’s chaos, Davis said.
“If I could have only got 911. If they could have only got here a little bit earlier,” Elsa St. John said. “I feel so helpless that I couldn’t help my mother.”
Then the family shared memories of the strong-willed woman who was active in her local union, but also loved to dress up and go dancing, and playfully nudged noisy family members to quiet down by gradually turning up the TV volume.
They also rang up a family friend, Marilyn Eiss, 47, who Herminia jokingly called her “white daughter.”
“She was one of those people with a backbone of iron,” Eiss said over the phone, before she related stories Herminia told her about leaving Panama and making a good life for her and her family in America.
“Just like they always say, If you work hard you can achieve anything,” Eiss said. “And that’s what she did.”