A daughter obsessively imagines the final moments of her father’s life five years later. Was he afraid? What was his last thought as the waters of New York rose around him and his wife? A granddaughter likes to picture that they died holding hands. She knows it didn’t happen that way.
Other families nearby dealt with loss in other ways. A New York City sanitation worker cannot bring himself to return to the block on Staten Island where his mother lived for decades, and died there in the same storm: Hurricane Sandy.
“I can’t even go down that street,” said the worker, Vincent Spagnuolo. “I pick up garbage for a living. One time, they gave me that street. I said, ‘I’ll meet you on the next block.’”
The five-year anniversary of New York City’s deadliest hurricane in modern history arrives with the families of victims still struggling to find their way in the new terrain created that day, one with blank spaces where houses once stood and lives once lived. More than half of the 43 people killed in New York City were on Staten Island, and of those 24 victims, many died in or near the same neighborhood, Midland Beach, a quiet grid of bungalows swallowed by what survivors described as a tidal wave.
The victims were young and old, grandparents and young fathers and, in one case, little boys not yet in school. The water rushed into homes, knocking down walls and pulling parents outside to drown. Others were electrocuted when live wires met the water in which they stood.
Elsewhere in the city, neighborhoods hard hit by Sandy are rebounding, and at street level, Staten Island is no different. To walk through Midland Beach is to hear the chugging and whining of backhoes and power tools and the pounding of hammers as contractors rebuild.
But relatives of those who died described gaps in their own reckoning with loss. Some remain haunted by what they imagine about the end. Others still feel an uncomfortable frustration toward their loved one who died — why didn’t he evacuate? Or why did she wait until the last moment?
Walter Colborne, the 89-year-old father, and his wife, Marie Colborne, 66, were active retirees in the Great Kills neighborhood, traveling on cruise ships and taking regular outings in their yacht they kept at a dock near their home. Mrs. Colborne, like her husband, had been married before, and with that in mind, they named the yacht “One More Time.” They once spent a month navigating the Atlantic to visit children in Florida, and another month coming home.
Mr. Colborne was a World War II veteran who had fought in Europe. He was fearless, said his daughter, Christine Colborne, 64, of Fort Myers, Fla. Their children were concerned, but not surprised, when the couple said they were riding out Sandy in their apartment.
“I told her to get the hell out,” said Mrs. Colborne’s daughter from a prior marriage, Jeanne Mikkelsen, 52, also of Fort Myers. “She said, ‘No, we’re staying upstairs.’ Well, they didn’t stay upstairs.’”
The storm arrived on Oct. 29, 2012. The Colbornes’ children called and called. No answer. Mr. Colborne’s granddaughter, Debra Drancsak Cooper, 54, urged others to stay calm. “I said, ‘Mom, they had a hurricane. The cells are down.” She is from Gretna, La., and like her aunts in Florida, knew what a passing storm could do to communications. But then another day passed.
“Halloween night is when we really started thinking about it,” Ms. Cooper said.
The police, firefighters and paramedics searched on Staten Island for survivors. But it was a civilian who, looking behind a boat in a wooded lot, found the two bodies.
“We think they probably panicked in the end,” said Christine Colborne. “There was water and sand in their condo. They panicked and tried to go.”
Even that still doesn’t sound quite right; Mr. Colborne wasn’t prone to panic. Their children wonder if he had some sort of medical emergency that forced them to seek help. Their car was near the bodies, keys in the ignition and a few thousand dollars and some clothes stashed inside.
“We still want to think in our minds that they were together, holding hands,” Ms. Cooper said. “Which they were not.”
At their funeral, another couple said they had seen the Colbornes drive away from the apartment as they were doing the same thing, but they turned in different directions when exiting the complex, one couple toward safety and the other, death.
“I obsessed over my father in this cold black water, wondering what his final thoughts were,” said Christine Colborne. “It killed me.”
A few miles away, a 79-year-old widow and mother of six, Beatrice Spagnuolo, was in her small home on Grimsby Street in Midland Beach as the storm approached. She had survived colon cancer, but she was frail. Her next-door neighbor was her best friend, practically family.
When she was raising her children, Ms. Spagnuolo had preached the importance of solid civil-service jobs, and they listened. She would come to count among them a police officer, a subway motorman, a construction foreman and a sanitation worker.
One of her daughters, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, was asleep on her couch as the storm approached. Ms. Spagnuolo’s house was on her regular route.
Her son Vincent called. “I said, ‘You’ve got to get the hell out of there — get your stuff and go,’” he said. “The water was coming up to her knees.”
She obeyed. Her daughter helped her into their car and was pulling away from the house. Then the mother told her to stop.
“Let me go get my pills,” she told her daughter. She went back inside.
A huge wave struck the block. “All the lights went black,” Mr. Spagnuolo said, repeating what his sister later told the family. “There were wires from the telephone pole, electrocuting. Sparks.”
When the waters receded, Ms. Spagnuolo’s body was found in the house. Next door, her old friend, Anastasia Rispoli, 73, was dead, too.
Halloween was the next day. Mr. Spagnuolo, who lived in Brooklyn, had a young daughter who had expected to go trick-or-treating. “She was crying,” Mr. Spagnuolo recalled. “So I took her around the corner. I had to put on a happy attitude for her. It was terrible.”
The death of Ms. Spagnuolo affected her children in different ways. Some have become more reclusive, skipping family gatherings at Christmas and other holidays. Most of them, like Mr. Spagnuolo, cannot visit the block of Grimsby where she lived. He lights a candle at Mass for his mother, who was a regular at church.
“You relive it,” he said. “Every year they have, like, a walk down by the beach there. They play a bagpiper. It’s tough to go. Something you don’t get over, the way she died.”
The house, unsafe, was razed. The lot remains empty. Someone else delivers mail on the block — not Ms. Spagnuolo’s daughter, who, like her brother in sanitation, can’t go back. Not for work, not for anything.
In the case of the Colbornes, it was Mrs. Colborne’s daughter, Ms. Mikkelsen, who settled their affairs on Staten Island, where she grew up and couldn’t get away from fast enough after college. But a string of fluke accidents — a bad pipe, a neighbor’s leak — has delayed the sale of their home and kept her reluctantly coming back up from Florida for weeks at a time.
“It’s almost like somebody up above doesn’t want me to move on,” she said.
Finally, this summer brought interest from a buyer.
“I went in, I said goodbye to the apartment, and I don’t ever plan on going back there again,” she said. “Staten Island represents the death of my mother.”
In her darkest times, she forced herself to think about other victims. A mother lost two sons, ages 2 and 4, when waves swept them from her arms on Staten Island. That mother, like others, declined to speak last week. Ms. Mikkelsen has never met her.
“When I started feeling sorry for myself,” Ms. Mikkelsen said, “I thought of her.”