In Superstorm Sandy deaths, mystery, fate and bad timing

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In Superstorm Sandy deaths, mystery, fate and bad timing
They stepped in the wrong puddle. They walked the dog at the wrong moment. Or they did exactly what all the emergency experts instructed them to do - they huddled inside and waited for its anger to go away.

The storm found them all.

Hurricane Sandy, in the wily and savage way of natural disasters, expressed its full assortment of lethal methods as it hit the East Coast on Monday night. In its howling sweep, the authorities said the storm claimed at least 40 lives in eight states.

They were infants and adolescents, people embarking on careers and those looking back on them - the ones who paid the ultimate price of this most destructive of storms. In Franklin Township, Pa., an 8-year-old boy was crushed by a tree when he ran outside to check on his family's calves. A woman died in Somerset County, Pa., when her car slid off a snowy road.

There were 16 deaths reported in New York City, where the toll was heaviest, and 5 more fatalities elsewhere in the state.

Most of all, it was the trees. Uprooted or cracked by the furious winds, they became weapons that flattened cars, houses and pedestrians. But also, a woman was killed by a severed power line. A man was swept by flooding waters out of his house and through the glass of a store. The power blinked off for a 75-year-old woman on a respirator, and a heart attack killed her.

And the storm left its share of mysteries. A parking lot attendant was found dead in a subterranean parking garage in TriBeCa, the precise cause unclear. The body of an unidentified woman washed up on Georgica Beach in East Hampton, on Long Island.

Some people died and no one knew, not for hours, not until the storm backed away and moved on.

They did what dog owners do. They walked the dog. They were friends living in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Jessie Streich-Kest was 24 and Jacob Vogelman was 23. Around 8 on Monday evening, during the howling viciousness of the storm, they ventured out with her dog, Max, a white pit bull mix.

Ms. Streich-Kest grew up with her family in Prospect Park South and was a teaching fellow. She had just started teaching at the Bushwick School for Social Justice, a high school. She had gone through her first parent-teacher conference last week, and was laughing about it afterward with her parents and their friends.

Her father, Jon Kest, is executive director of New York Communities for Change and a longtime activist who has led the battle to unionize carwashes and supermarkets across the city, as well as being a leader in the battle for paid sick days. His daughter was herself a bit of an activist, and helped organize Stop Horse Abuse, which was aimed at the carriage horses in Central Park.

In the wind and the rain, the two strode along Ditmas Avenue, a block of old Victorians and similar sprawling homes beneath a canopy of vast maples, oaks and lindens.

In rapid succession, perhaps within a space of no more than a half-hour, the brutal winds knocked down three trees. There was a booming sound as one fell. Their roots tore up massive chunks of sidewalk.

One of the trees on the south side of the block crushed them. They lay there until Tuesday morning, when their bodies were found.

No one realized that the trees had hit anyone. "We had no idea," said Pat Atia, whose house faces out onto Ditmas Avenue on the block between East 17th and East 18th Streets. "I was outside taking pictures of my house for the insurance when a cop said 'back up, back up' and I saw a young man dead under the tree."

The dog was bruised but survived. Neighbors were caring for him.

She just wanted pictures. In Richmond Hill, Queens, a power line the length of a block on 105th Avenue between 134th and 135th Streets snapped and crumpled to the ground. The frayed end of the line began sparking wildly.

Around 8 on Monday night, a 23-year-old woman who lived at the end of the block came out to her driveway clutching a camera.

Her name was Lauren Abraham, and she went by Lola. She was a makeup artist who worked for several professional agencies. She maintained a makeup studio in the basement of the house, which her parents owned. The third floor was vacant, and so she used it as a makeshift photography studio for shots to advertise her makeup skills.
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She was attending beauty school, but had also been studying at Lehman College to become a social studies teacher.

Elpidio Nunez, a close friend for 10 years, said she was passionate about making her friends look gorgeous before a night out at the clubs.

"She was a beautiful girl, very carefree, she was never depressed," Mr. Nunez said. "I had never seen her cry."
 
Tamica Penn, 22, her best friend, said, "If you ever needed to talk, she would be there."

The two had spoken at 7 p.m., an hour before she went outside to take her pictures of the downed power line.

The line was still sparking as Ms. Abraham walked down the driveway and into the rain-drenched street. She came into contact with one end of the snapped wire.

She caught fire.

A half-dozen or so witnesses watched in utter horror. They said her body burned for about a half-hour before the police and firefighters arrived.

Mr. Nunez woke up in the middle of the night. He had a sick feeling that something was very wrong. He sent text messages to his good friend over and over to see if she was all right. Nothing came back.


© 2012, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: October 31, 2012 09:06 IST

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