NEW YORK CITY — An effort to give away free fuel across the city began unraveling Saturday amid reports of miles-long lines, people re-selling cans of gas for up to $200 and police admitting they have "lost control of the situation" at one location.
At the Brooklyn Armory in Crown Heights, desperation turned to anger as the line of cars waiting for fuel stretched for miles.
Those not waiting for gas this afternoon were told to keep away from the head of the swelling line by one police officer, who stated that "we do not have control over the situation."
Some in line even reported seeing others filling up cans and then turning around and selling them for up to $200 each.
One woman asking a police officer about the line said the officer told her to buy it from someone who had already filled up.
"I was inquiring about the status of the line, and one of them told me that I could always go around the corner and buy it from some guy," she said. "I said, 'are you telling me to participate in an illegal activity?' And he said, 'Well you do want gas, don't you?'"
Several times throughout the day, accusations of line cutting nearly led to fights.
At one point, three women were removed from the line by police for allegedly cutting, sparking a shouting match that continued to ratchet up the tensions.
"People forget — we live in a concrete jungle," said Lyndale Patterson, 44, a public school teacher, who got on line about 2:20 p.m. toting a 5-gallon tank.
"When your self-preservation is under attack, you can't predict how people will act."
First responders were given priority in line Saturday afternoon, raising concerns as people questioned when — and if — they would even get gas.
The National Guard acknowledged that while they intended for the general public to access the gas, they did not expect the crush of people hoping to fill their tanks. When authorities saw the number of people who showed up at the fueling stations, they instructured officials to stop filling new vehicles and to prioritize only emergency vehicles.
“We're asking the public to give a breather,” New York National Guard spokesman Richard Goldenberg said. "We’re definitely calling on everyone for their patience."
However, crews continued to fill up private cars at the free fuel locations in Crown Heights, Staten Island and Jamaica into Saturday evening.
“The rumor I heard is that the White House said if they’re here, they get it,” said Air Force Capt. Ryan Abbott, who was working at the Staten Island location, noting that authorities were alternating between filling three emergency vehicles at a time, followed by three civilian vehicles.
“We have a pretty fluid system going.”
He said that in the first five hours of fueling, they went through 2,000 gallons and expect for the tanker to be empty by about 4 a.m. Sunday.
Goldenberg said authorities were aware of issues of re-selling, price gouging and fighting, but that he expected more out of New Yorkers.
“We have higher expectations on ourselves,” Goldenberg said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed the fueling stations in a Saturday press conference, urging New Yorkers to remain patient amid the frustration.
"One of the problems is when you have lots of different agencies, it takes awhile for them to get coordinated," he said. "We’re trying to adjust… just have some patience."
Bloomberg did acknowledge that the gas would be slow flowing with so many people waiting.
"We’re not going to get to everybody on everything immediately," he said. "You gotta understand people's frustration. They’re cold, they're tired, they’ve lost a lot."
In Brooklyn, people came carrying anything they could get their hands on to fill with fuel, from empty paint cans to bleach and water bottles.
"They have been waiting in line for hours," said Butch Manuel, 57. "People are going to go crazy."
Letter carrier Rosa Delvalle, 42, who was told she had to wait in the back of the line because she isn't a first responder, bought 5 gallons of gas from a station earlier in the day, but paid $40 to "lease" a gas can.
"I said I was a letter carrier, and the mail has to get delivered," she said of her argument for getting through the line quicker. "I feel bad. I missed a $300 day of work."
The situation appeared more orderly in storm-ravaged Staten Island, where nearly 1,000 people stood on line at the Staten Island/Elizabeth Armory Saturday afternoon, while a line of cars stretched for about 3 miles.
However, a fight between two men had to be broken up by National Guardsmen about 4 p.m., after one of the men left the line to go to the bathroom, only to return and be accused of cutting, witnesses said.
In some instances, people cut deals in order for a shot at the fuel — with one man on Staten Island trading half his can's worth to cut the line.
Rodolfo Velazquez, 31, a construction worker, has been pumping water out of flood-damaged homes in Midland Beach and came to get gas to fuel his company's generator.
After waiting for two hours, he asked man near front of line with only one 5-gallon can to fill his, as well. The man agreed, but for a price: half of the gas in Velazquez's can. He agreed.
In Queens, Tara Singleton said she was driving to the supermarket early this morning when her tank emptied out. The only personal tank she owned was a 2-and-a-half gallon container that she said she hoped would get her to somewhere, like Connecticut, where she could gas up fully.
"It's like something out of a movie," Singleton said. "You never think you're going to live out something like this."
Still, Singleton said she was taking it in stride, delivering people warm food and hot coffee just to keep the crowd placated.
"People are getting restless," she said. "One guy jumped the line before. I thought they were going to beat him to death."
There was also growing concern among the crowd that things might be out of hand should the National Guard run out of gas.
"You think Sandy was bad?" Singleton asked. "This place will explode if they start sending people home who've been waiting seven hours."
As of about 6:30 p.m. Saturday, officials said they had about 5,000 gallons of gas remaining to give out through the night.
In Staten Island, Johnny Canelo, 27, and his mom Anatalia Canelo, 53, were near the front of the car line with his vehicle running on fumes. At one point it stalled, but a friendly neighbor gave him a jump.
"We're running low on food. We need to get to the supermarket. And a lot of ATMs are shut down, so we need to drive somewhere to get cash," Johnny explained.
"I'm getting gas for my daughter, she's a toddler, and we need it in case of an emergency. If I didn't have a toddler at home, I probably would't be waiting here."
As the sun began to set on Staten Island Saturday, Donna Bracey, 39, wrapped in a giant blanket given to her by authorities, was in it for the long haul.
“I’ll stay all night if I have to," said the nursing home worker, who added that she needed the gas to get to work. “We’ve been rescuing people all through this weather. I need to be there on Monday to help.”
The tankers, which are being provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, hit the streets Saturday morning, with 150,000 gallons of additional fuel available to restock the trucks throughout the day.
Cars will be able to fill up directly from the trucks, but will be limited to 10 gallons at a time.
The trucks are sent to the following locations:
Queens Armory, 93-05 160th St. Jamaica, NY 11433
Bronx Armory, 10 West 195th St., Bronx, NY 10468
Brooklyn Armory, 1579 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11225
Staten Island/Elizabeth Armory, 321 Manor Road, Staten Island, NY 10314
Freeport Armory, 63 Babylon Turnpike, Freeport, NY 11520