Trapped in Basements and Cars, They Lost Their Lives in Savage Storm

By Sarah Maslin Nir

The storm’s victims included at least 15 people in New York State and 23 in New Jersey. Some died as waters inundated their basement homes.

Mingma Sherpa, her husband, Lobsang Lama, and their little boy whom people called Ang drowned in their basement apartment in Queens. 
Mingma Sherpa, her husband, Lobsang Lama, and their little boy whom people called Ang drowned in their basement apartment in Queens. Credit...Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
Sarah Maslin Nir

At 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Mingma Sherpa, who lived in a basement apartment in Queens with her husband and toddler son, frantically called her upstairs neighbor for help.

“The water is coming in right now,” Choi Sledge, the neighbor, said, recalling Ms. Sherpa’s desperation. “Get out! Get to the third floor!” Ms. Sledge said she screamed into the phone.

But the family did not come upstairs. Ms. Sledge called them again. The call was brief. “The last thing I hear from them is, ‘The water coming in from the window.’ And that was it,” Ms. Sledge said on Thursday.

All three of her neighbors died that night — Ms. Sherpa, her husband, Lobsang Lama, and their little boy whom people called Ang. They drowned in a storm that pounded down the wettest hour in New York City history, according to the National Weather Service, which declared a flash flood emergency — the first ever for the city — just at the time of Ms. Sherpa’s phone call.

On Thursday, a day after New York City and the surrounding area was pummeled with the remnants of Hurricane Ida, an onslaught with a destructive power of shocking proportions, the region took stock of the mounting dead: As of late afternoon, at least 15 people had been found dead in New York State, at least 23 people had been killed in New Jersey, four were found dead in Pennsylvania and one person died in Connecticut.

Families and friends of the dead reeled as they relived the split seconds when the water took the people they loved. It was painfully sunny on Thursday, following the chaos of a storm that had swept in at about 9 the night before, washing through homes, swallowing up vehicles and sucking down lives.

At around 11 a.m. Thursday, three people were found dead in a basement on Peck Avenue in Queens.Credit...Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

Some victims were killed by collapsing structures, while others were overcome by onrushing water. In South Plainfield, N.J., Dhanush Reddy, 31, was swept into the 36-inch mouth of a storm sewer pipe, according to the news site Patch. Mr. Reddy’s body was discovered on Thursday in Piscataway, nearly five miles away.

Still others, like Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Weissmandl, a dedicated patron of the Yeshiva of Nitra Rabbinical College in Mount Kisco, N.Y., died on the road as their cars flooded. While the torrents came down on Wednesday evening, Rabbi Weissmandl desperately telephoned his son after his car was trapped in deep water as he tried to drive home through the storm.

The son, Moshe Weissmandl, asked a Jewish aid group, Chaverim, to help. After hours of searching, his father’s car was found submerged on a ramp to the Saw Mill River Parkway. It was empty. Rabbi Weissmandl’s body was not recovered until Thursday morning.

Many of the flood’s victims lived in basement apartments, some of which were subterranean dwellings carved out illegally from larger homes and may have lacked the emergency egress required of legitimate apartments. Comparatively low-cost living spaces, they are a refuge of thousands of the city’s poor, even as they are known to be firetraps.

Overnight, the basements became traps of water.

In Elizabeth, N.J., two men and two women, all residents of the Oaks at Westminster apartment complex, were killed as water flooded ground-floor apartments.Credit...Dakota Santiago for The New York Times

Outside the house on 64th Street in Woodside, Martha Suarez, an early childhood educator, arrived Thursday to check on her toddler pupil, Ang Lama. She had not heard from Ms. Sherpa or Mr. Lama about his lessons that day.

“I was afraid when they didn’t call me,” Ms. Suarez said through sobs, as she learned the entire family had been killed hours before. “I came to see the baby and the baby died, everybody died,” she said into her cellphone. “Oh, Jesus! The baby and the parents!”

A number of people were killed after walls and roofs failed to hold up to the deluge — more than half a foot fell in just a few hours. The rain broke records set just about a week and a half prior by Tropical Storm Henri, underscoring climate scientists’ warnings of the future of a hotter planet, producing ever stronger storms.

As the walls began to leak in their basement apartment on 183rd Street in Hollis, Queens, and the water reached their ankles, the Ramskriets — father, mother and two sons — hustled to get their things. Suddenly, they heard a collapse, said Dylan Ramskriet, one of the brothers, and a gush of water shoved them through the pitch-black apartment as the walls caved in.

The torrent swept his father, Dameshwar, across the home, as he clutched for the hand of his wife, who was known as Tara. “I tried to hold on to my wife, and she was trying to hold on to me,” he said on Thursday. He began to cry. “But the water pushed me away and I couldn’t feel her hand anymore.”

Ms. Ramskriet and their 22-year-old son, who went by Nick, both drowned.

As the waters receded on Thursday, Sabrina Shivprasad, a family friend, stood outside the apartment, its wall punched in by the cresting water, exposing what once was a family home. “When you saw the husband, you saw the wife,” Ms. Shivprasad said. “They were always together, they were like shadows to each other.”

In Elizabeth, N.J., two men and two women, ages 72 to 33, all residents of the Oaks at Westminster apartment complex, were killed as the Elizabeth River rose into their ground-floor apartments, according to Chris Bollwage, the mayor. Their names had not yet been released.

Raw sewage had sluiced through the Oaks complex, and on Thursday, all 600 residents were being evacuated, guided onto school buses en route to temporary shelters, Mr. Bollwage said. The river had risen between eight and 10 feet above its banks, he said; waterfront apartments lay with their doors smashed open, mud swirled across exposed living rooms. “It is really a true tragedy,” he said.

Some were lost even after daring rescue attempts. A cascade of water burst the glass sliding doors of a basement apartment Darlene Lee was visiting in the complex where she lived on Grand Central Parkway in Queens.

She became pinned between the steel door behind it and the door frame, said Patricia Fuentes, the condominium’s property manager, who heard her screams and grabbed two members of the building’s staff to try and free Ms. Lee.

As they worked, they tried to keep her head above the water, which had risen to her chin, said Andy Tapia, a maintenance worker. But by the time she was prised free, she had lost consciousness, he said. “We tried in vain,” Mr. Tapia said.

On Thursday residents and staff lit prayer candles by the door of the apartment where she died and remembered Ms. Lee, always stylish, always filled with a zest for life. “Darlene was the epitome of kindness and loving,” said Nancy Badagliacca, 60, a neighbor. “She’d give you the shirt off her back.”

A resident peered into the flooded garage of a building in Queens where Darlene Lee died in a basement apartment.Credit...Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

As the water rushed through the single window and single door of an apartment converted from a cellar in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, Ricardo Garcia, 50, and Oliver De La Cruz, 22, roommates, struggled to make it out against the onslaught. They only realized their third roommate, Roberto Bravo, a retired construction worker, was still inside when they heard his screams.

Mr. De La Cruz recalled the trauma on Thursday, while inspecting the ruins of his home. At his feet was a photo of Mr. Bravo, smiling in a tuxedo, washed up in the flood.

Mr. De La Cruz recalled hearing Mr. Bravo’s pleas of “Ayúdame por favor”: “Help me please.” But the waters were too high for the men to go back inside for their roommate.

Soon they stopped hearing his voice.

A photo was found outside the basement apartment of Roberto Bravo (seated, far right, in a black suit), who drowned. His roommates escaped the flooded apartment.Credit...Anna Watts for The New York Times

Reporting was contributed by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, Matthew Goldstein, Chelsia Rose Marcius, Angely Mercado, Amanda Rosa, Nate Schweber and Daniel E. Slotnik. Susan Beachy and Kitty Bennett contributed research.