NEW YORK -- When Sandy's storm surge plowed into the seaside neighborhood of Breezy Point, New York City police Officer and volunteer firefighter Tim O'Brien was part of the small band of first responders who kept the flood from becoming a slaughter.

As the tide lifted beach homes off their foundations and started a terrifying fire that devoured more than 100 buildings, he was among the rescuers who tried to contain the inferno and hauled boats through the streets to carry residents to higher ground. Dozens of people were literally dragged to safety clinging to the sides of fire trucks.

Only when it was over did he have a chance to tally his personal losses. His own apartment house in the Rockaways had been severely damaged in the flood. His parents' home was inundated, too. So was his mother-in-law's.

"It's heartbreaking," he said. "We all grew up down here."

Superstorm Sandy devastated people of every walk of life, but it has upended things in a unique way for first responders. Many are spending their working hours helping a battered city get back on its feet, only to return home to find destruction as bad as any in the city.

The NYPD says an estimated 1,300 officers suffered a "catastrophic" loss during the storm. And the Fire Department says 500 firefighters have registered their homes as damaged or destroyed. That figure doesn't include people who lost vehicles or were displaced from homes still without power.

"This whole community is devastated, but they've still got to go to work," said Roy Richter, president of the Captains Endowment Association, an NYPD union. "Give your wife and children a blanket and a candle, and say, `I'll see you in 12 to 16 hours."

For generations, police officers and firefighters heading home exhausted at the end of their shifts have found tranquillity in Breezy Point, which sits in sandy, wind-swept isolation at the tip of the Rockaway peninsula that protects parts of New York City from the Atlantic surf.

Here, the barrier peninsula is less than 1,100 yards wide in some spots from sea to bay. There is only one road in and out. Many houses sit on sandy walkways, rather than paved streets. Homes are bunched so closely, they nearly touch. Everyone knows everyone.

It would be an exaggeration to say everyone there has a badge or bunker gear, but not by much. Only about 5,000 people live in the community, yet it has three volunteer fire departments and lost 32 residents in the Sept. 11 attacks.

When the storm came, it rendered this community of bravest and finest nearly helpless.

The sea washed over the entire peninsula. Strong winds fueled the fire like a blowtorch, hurling baseball-size embers block after block, setting roofs ablaze, while chin-high floodwaters kept the FDNY from bringing in reinforcements.

Many of the neighborhood's residents had ignored the evacuation order and were home when the fire and water came. Yet somehow, no one died.

"I did two tours of combat duty in Iraq, but this was the most disturbing thing I've ever seen," said Jimmy Coan, a captain in the NYPD's aviation unit. He spent the night in a diver's dry suit, sloshing door to door in waist-deep water.

Since the storm, O'Brien has been putting in his full shifts at the NYPD, and then going back to work for the volunteer fire brigade in Breezy Point, which has thrown itself into relief and recovery work. His wife and children have been staying in Staten Island.

"It's tiring, but it's got to be done," he said of his 18-hour days.

He counts himself among the lucky. Some other members of the volunteer fire company have been sleeping behind a tarp curtain in a building that smells of soot and is being used as a warehouse for relief supplies.

Coan didn't lose his home in the storm, because he lives year-round on a 52-foot boat. But he had to haul the yacht out of the water before the storm as a precaution, and his marina was badly damaged, so for now he has been displaced, as well.

"I'm sleeping in an Army sleeping bag at night," he said.

NYPD Sgt. Kathy Cowan, another member of the aviation unit, had 4 feet of floodwaters and sewage course through her home during the storm.

Since then, she has been staying with a colleague, while quietly stewing over suddenly finding herself on the wrong end of the kind of emergency scenario cops and firefighters deal with at work all the time.

"It drives me crazy to be the victim," she said.

Richter is also a longtime Breezy Point resident. He returned to the neighborhood the next morning to find his beachfront home, which he had finished reconstructing only a year ago, an unsalvageable, half-flattened mess.

His father's house, a short walk away, also suffered severe flood damage but stayed on its foundation.

"He dug that foundation himself – 2,142 wheelbarrows of sand," Richter said.

The five unions that represent NYPD officers and commanders have set up a charity, the New York Police Disaster Relief Fund, to get aid to the hardest-hit members of the department.

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  • Michael Bloomberg

    New York Mayor Bloomberg took all the major precautions to keep New Yorkers safe. He ordered 3,750,000 people to vacate the low-lying areas across the five boroughs and ordered a complete shutdown of the mass transit system well before the storm even hit. According to the New York Times, he even calmly dealt with a huge <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/30/nyregion/crane-accident-at-one57-in-midtown.html?_r=0">crane poised to collapse </a>over a luxury skyscraper.

  • Power Workers

    While most people were advised to evacuate from Sandy's path of destruction, <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/galleries/2012/10/30/hurricane-sandy-heroes-from-coast-guard-rescuers-to-red-cross-volunteers-photos.html?huff_e_query=%28red+cross+volunteers%29+%7C+%28shipwrecked+sailors%29+%7C+%28mayor+bloomberg%29+%7C+%28u+s+news%29&huff_e_sorting=recency#a4efc0e0-35ad-42d8-9b29-8aca40743719">power workers knowingly went into the thick of things</a>. According to the Daily Beast, more than 500 power workers came up from Alabama to assist in recovery efforts, and at least 150 came from the West Coast to help restore power in New York.

  • Cory Booker

    Newark Mayor Booker deployed a team in Newark to ensure that the homeless were able to find shelter at an emergency base on Sussex Avenue.

  • Cory Booker

    Newark Mayor Booker deployed a team in Newark to ensure that the homeless were able to find shelter at an emergency base on Sussex Avenue.

  • U.S. Coast Guard

    The crew of the HMS Bounty was forced to abandon ship as Hurricane Sandy slowly claimed the vessel. According to the Huffington Post, "by the time the first rescue helicopter arrived, all that was visible of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/hms-bounty-pirates-of-the-caribbean-hurricane-sandy_n_2037079.html">the replica 18th-century sailing vessel</a> was a strobe light atop the ship's submerged masts." The Coast Guard rescued 14 crew members by helicopter Monday.

  • Martin O'Malley

    Maryand Gov. O'Malley was determined not to let his state lose power. He preemptively told his state's utility providers to get help before the storm hits so they can be prepared. More than 3,000 emergency workers from other states have flooded in to help Pepco, the power company which serves both D.C. and Maryland. According to First Coast News, O'Malley also <a href="http://www.firstcoastnews.com/weather/article/279825/29/Maryland-Gov-Declares-State-Of-Emergency-before-Hurricane-Sandy">declared a state of emergency</a> even before the storm hit allowing the state the ability to activate the Maryland National Guard and provide assistance to local emergency centers.

  • Indiana Red Cross Volunteers

    As the East coast scrambled to prepare and respond to the destruction from Sandy, a crew of Indiana residents began a pilgrimage eastward to help. According to the Daily Beast, <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/galleries/2012/10/30/hurricane-sandy-heroes-from-coast-guard-rescuers-to-red-cross-volunteers-photos.html?huff_e_query=%28red+cross+volunteers%29+%7C+%28shipwrecked+sailors%29+%7C+%28mayor+bloomberg%29+%7C+%28u+s+news%29&huff_e_sorting=recency#142b35af-f98a-41af-9044-bc1a7753ef6c">American Red Cross volunteers based in Indiana</a> journeyed late last week to Harrisburg, Penn., where they began staging rescue efforts for the storm that was to come in the next few days.

  • This New Jersey Resident

    After getting hit by a rogue wave on Monmouth Beach, New Jersey, this poor <a href="http://www.kxan.com/dpp/news/strange/deer-caught-in-hurricane-sandy-surf-nd12">deer got swept out to sea</a> in the turbulent currents caused by Hurricane Sandy. A man who was also on the beach at the time of the wave was able to rescue the deer from the water, reported KXAN. It's suffering a broken leg, but is expected to recover in the custody of animal control.

  • Rich Eighme

    A Republican running for the General Assembly, Eighme, spent much of Sunday <a href="http://www.norwichbulletin.com/news/x1440167833/HURRICANE-SANDY-General-Assembly-candidate-hands-out-flashlights#axzz2AixswOI3">walking door to door handing out campaign flashlights</a> in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. A resident of Griswold, Conn., told the Norwich Bulletin that he focused on back roads that could possible lose power within the 45th District, which includes Griswold, Lisbon, Plainfield, Sterling and Voluntown.

  • The Good Samaritan New York Cabbie

    According to Curbed, one <a href="http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2012/10/30/one57_crane_collapse_sends_neighbors_fleeing_midtown.php">good samaritan New York cab driver</a> was "ferrying refugees all over the place," including several from the Parker Meridien where a crane dangled precariously over the building forcing residents to evacuate.

  • The Staff at New York University's Langone Medical Center

    According to the Atlantic Wire, when the power failed at New York University's Langone Medical Center, "approximately 1,000 hospital staffers (doctors, nurses, residents, and medical students), along with firefighters and police officers,<a href="http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2012/10/heroes-hurricane/58498/?huff_e_query=%28hurricane+national%29+%7C+%28heroes%29+%7C+%28new+york+city%29+%7C+%28faith%29&huff_e_sorting=recency"> carried 260 patients</a> down 15 flights of stairs, in the dark, with flashlights, to ambulances that transported them to other area hospitals."

  • Vern Gillmore

    According to the Huffington Post, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/hurricane-sandy-vern-gillmore-utah_n_2038607.html?ir=Impact">the 70-year-old Utah man</a> has been volunteering with his American Red Cross chapter for three years and was deployed Monday to help a small portion of some 50 million people who could be affected by the storm.

  • Breezy Point Firefighters

    According to the Huffington Post, a huge fire destroyed 80 to 100 houses in a flooded beachfront neighborhood in New York on Tuesday. More than <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/30/breezy-point-fire_n_2043071.html">190 firefighters were able to contain the blaze</a> but were still putting out pockets of fire more than nine hours after it began. According to HuffPost, "Firefighters said that the water was chest high on the street, and they had to use a boat to make rescues. They said in one apartment home, about 25 people were trapped in an upstairs unit, and the two-story home next door was ablaze and setting fire to the apartment's roof. Firefighters climbed an awning to get to the trapped people and took them downstairs to a boat in the street."

  • Heroic New Jersey Dump Truck Driver

    According to NewJersey.com, thousands of Little Ferry and Moonachie residents were rescued from flooded homes this morning. While most residents were rescued by the National Guard, sisters Lori Turner and Sharon Cardia along with their families were rescued by an <a href="http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/10/thousands_rescued_from_bergen.html">anonymous good samaritan dump truck driver</a>.

  • New York Scuba Rescue Team

    Diane Sawyer talks to Terrance Sullivan about the incredible scuba response team.

  • Spencer Service

    According to Patch, a Flatbush, New York <a href="http://windsorterrace.patch.com/articles/hurri-kittens#c">man walked more than a mile in the face of Hurricane Sandy to save a litter of newborn kittens from the storm</a>. As the rain began to fall and the wind picked up speed, Service and his roommate headed downstairs, intending to shelter the fledgling feline family under a cardboard box. Service, however, didn't feel he had done enough to help the soaked kittens. He grabbed a cat carrier from his apartment, lined the bottom with t-shirts, and prepared to embark on the trek to a rescue facility, nearly two miles away from his Flatbush home, where he delivered the kittens unharmed. Note: this is not an actual photograph of the cats.