A feared mass killer, Irene got victims one by one

This Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011 file photo provided by the Queen Anne’s County Office of the Sheriff shows a tree that has fallen on a house in Queen Anne's County, Md., due to Hurricane Irene, causing a chimney to collapse, killing one person. Forecast to be the biggest storm in decades to hit the Eastern Seaboard, Irene triggered evacuations, airport closures and the unprecedented shutdown of New York's mass transit system. But unlike major hurricanes that kill dozens of victims at a time, this storm claimed a victim here and a victim there on its swirl through 13 states as it spun toward Canada — at least 46 U.S. deaths in all.
AP Photo/Queen Anne’s County Office of the Sheriff, File
This Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011 file photo provided by the Queen Anne’s County Office of the Sheriff shows a tree that has fallen on a house in Queen Anne's County, Md., due to Hurricane Irene, causing a chimney to collapse, killing one person. Forecast to be the biggest storm in decades to hit the Eastern Seaboard, Irene triggered evacuations, airport closures and the unprecedented shutdown of New York's mass transit system. But unlike major hurricanes that kill dozens of victims at a time, this storm claimed a victim here and a victim there on its swirl through 13 states as it spun toward Canada — at least 46 U.S. deaths in all.
Posted Sept. 03, 2011, at 2:30 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 04, 2011, at 7:15 p.m.

In Ayden, N.C., a man dies in his recliner, riding out Hurricane Irene at home because he didn’t want to leave his Chihuahua at home alone.

In Newport News, Va., a falling tree crushes an 11-year-old boy, sparing the mother who tried to protect him.

In Whitemarsh Township, Pa., a supermarket bookkeeper determined to make it to work for her 4:30 a.m. shift drives into floodwaters and drowns trying to walk the final mile.

And in Rutland, Vt., a public-works employee “conscientious to a fault” dies in a river’s raging floodwaters and his adult son is swept away as they check on the city’s water reservoir.

Hurricane Irene, which spared the East’s major cities from large-scale destruction, was a killer storm, nonetheless.

Forecast to be the biggest in decades to hit the Eastern Seaboard, it triggered evacuations, airport closures and the unprecedented shutdown of New York’s mass transit system.

But unlike major hurricanes that kill dozens of victims at a time, this storm claimed a victim here and a victim there on its angry swirl through 13 states as it spun toward Canada — at least 46 U.S. deaths in all.

“Water is the No. 1 killer,” retired National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield had warned Friday afternoon as Irene took aim on the East. “That’s going to cause the greatest loss of life.”

Many of Irene’s victims did die in furious stormwaters, while others were killed by toppled trees, fires, carbon monoxide poisonings and electrocutions.

—•—

By 3 a.m. Saturday, Irene was losing steam off North Carolina’s coast. Weakened to a Category 1 storm, its 90 mph winds still had plenty of punch.

A hurricane warning was issued and a state of emergency declared — but Timothy Gene Avery wasn’t about to leave his home in Ayden, much less his dogs.

Avery, 50, a bachelor, was sitting in his navy blue recliner, following Irene’s path on TV. His family and a friend had urged him to take safe shelter, but he didn’t want to leave Maya, his Labrador mix, and his Chihuahua Pepperoni, who would be spooked if he left them.

“The friend said, ‘Tim, why don’t you stay with me? I have a brick building. Bring your dogs. You’ll be safe. Ride out the storm,” said cousin Spencer Gay, 52. “But Tim didn’t want to go. He was especially worried about his Chihuahua.”

At about noon, a wind-blown tree snapped and fell on his home, crushing him where he sat. On Sunday, his parents and sister drove to his house because they hadn’t heard from him. They saw the tree.

This week, friends and family gathered in his parents’ house, bringing food and swapping stories before his burial in Winterville Cemetery, a tiny pasture in his eastern North Carolina town.

They remembered him as a “free spirit” who played drums in country rock bands, volunteered at a Christian food pantry and sometimes took in abandoned animals.

Now his family is trying to place Maya and Pepperoni.

“I can tell the dogs miss him,” Gay said. “It’s so sad. They keep looking for him.”

—•—

About 200 miles up the coast, winds were lashing Newport News, Va., keeping Zahir Robinson from getting to his karate lessons.

The honor-roll sixth grader, on pace to earn a yellow belt in karate eight weeks ahead of schedule, was with his mom, Angel Anthony, in their two-story apartment.

Winds howling around noon, the two curled up together for a nap — she closest to the window, just in case.

When the tree fell, it crashed through the bedroom, trapping Zahir. Anthony made it out unharmed.

“I was yelling, ‘Please, somebody help me, please find my baby,’” Anthony told The Daily Press of Newport News. “I couldn’t see him. I said, ‘Zahir, talk to your mom. Let Mom hear you. Let Mom hear you.’ He didn’t make a sound, he didn’t make a sound.”

Less than an hour later, her only child’s body was found in the debris of the home.

At his viewing in a Hampton, Va., funeral home, the youngster was laid out in a pinstripe suit, purple shirt and striped tie, near a photo of him in his No. 11 basketball jersey. His white karate uniform was draped across his casket.

Karate instructor Tom Daroja remembered how Zahir had smiled and patiently repeated himself when Daroja first mispronounced his name.

“I said Zahir? I got you, like Zaire the country,” Daroja said. “He said ‘That’s close enough.’ It wasn’t like he got annoyed with me — That kind of told me right then and there he’s going to make one of my black belts.”

As the trees killed Zahir and Avery, Irene’s tropical storm winds and rains were lashing the Delmarva Peninsula.

—•—

At 2 a.m. Sunday, rivers, streams and roadways swelled into flash floods from Maryland to New York as the storm churned up the coast— and Patricia O’Neill set out for work.

O’Neill, 64, of the Philadelphia suburb of East Norriton, had risen through the ranks at Genuardi’s Markets, working as cashier, information technology specialist and bookkeeper.

“She was a fiercely independent woman, but she was loved by customers and her co-workers alike,” said Genuardi’s spokeswoman Maryanne Crager.

O’Neill was determined to make it to her job through the intense rain and winds but her Honda Civic was engulfed in swirling floodwaters and she abandoned it, hoping to walk the last mile. She fell into a storm culvert and was swept away; her body was found several hours later in Wissahickon Creek.

“Her dedication ended up costing her her life,” Whitemarsh Township Police Chief Mike Beaty told The Associated Press. “She wanted to do her job.”

—•—

Jose Luis Sierra loved the water. And he loved his boat.

A retired plumber in New York City, the 68-year-old Bronx man recently bought the boat of his dreams — a 30-foot Baha cruiser that sleeps six. Just two days before the storm, he had tied it up at a City Island marina.

When he went to check on it at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, the sun was shining and it was windy. It was after Irene touched down but before the winds on the back end of the storm really picked up.

Hours later, after he failed to answer his cellphone, son Angel Sierra went to the marina about 5 p.m. He found emergency vehicles and was shown a body. It was his father’s. He had fallen into the water and drowned.

“One thing my father always said was that if he was going to die, he was going to die on the water, that’s what brought him peace,” his son said.

“That’s where he found peace and if his time came up that’s where he wanted to be. He was fortunate enough God granted him this wish instead of dying in a bed somewhere,” he said.

—•—

A weakening Irene, now a tropical storm, headed toward New England Sunday, its power still deceptively strong, its torrential rains feeding angry flash floods.

In Rutland, Vt., water treatment plant operator Michael J. Garofano was worried about the storm’s impact on his city’s drinking water when Irene began its destructive assault on Vermont.

That was Garofano all over, say those who knew him. Sometimes quiet, often gruff, always committed to doing his job right.

“No sizzle or frills beyond that,” said Frank Urso, his brother-in-law. “He was the consummate Mr. Fix-it type of guy who could fix anything.”

A 30-year city employee, he was known to co-workers as demanding and honest.

“He was very opinionated about the water supply,” said Alan Shelvey, the city’s commissioner of public works. “Everything was black-and-white with him. There were no chances taken, no almost good enough. It had to be top-notch.”

Nobody told him to go check on Mendon Brook, which feeds the reservoir and the water plant. At about 1:30 p.m. Sunday, he headed out in the rain with his son, Michael G. Garofano, 25.

No one knows what happened next. Family and friends believe a riverbank collapsed beneath them, plunging them into the raging brook.

On Monday, his body was found. His son’s hasn’t been recovered.

—•—

Irene’s winds and wrath left millions without power, including 300,000 homes and businesses in Maine. One of them was a summer home on Sebago Lake in Raymond owned by Lewis Somers III, 85, and wife Elizabeth, 84, of the Philadelphia suburb of Lafayette Hill, Pa.

Married 60 years, he was a successful businessman who had run two companies — BioChem Technology and Harmac Medical Products — before retiring. She was an avid gardener, a volunteer at the Morris Arboretum and active at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The couple, who supported many arts and cultural organizations in Philadelphia, had recently given $3 million to the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, where Somers graduated in 1944.

For decades, they were summer visitors to the Sebago Lake area, where their children attended summer camps. The couple built a lakeside house in the 1980s, equipping it with a propane generator system in the basement, to use when nor’easters and other storms disrupted power.

On Tuesday — two days after this storm had passed — a neighbor went to check on them. Lewis Somers was dead in the living room; Betty Somers was found sitting in a chair in a first-floor bedroom.

Investigators blame carbon monoxide from the propane generator.

—•—

Death came in other ways, too. A Connecticut canoeist died after capsizing on a flooded street. A 55-year-old Florida surfer died when he was tossed off his board.

In Maryland, another generator’s carbon monoxide killed a man and an 85-year-old woman died when a tree fell and crashed into her sunroom.

One of seven New Jersey victims was a 47-year-old man sucked into a drainpipe while clearing debris at a nursery.

For some, good intentions led to tragedy.

In New York, a man was electrocuted in Spring Valley when he tried to help a child in a flooded street.

And in Michael Garofano’s case, it was his dedication.

He was “very, very, very conscientious,” said Urso, his brother-in-law. “Conscientious to a fault, as it turns out. He should’ve never gone out in that storm.”

—•—

Contributing to this story were Associated Press writers Mitch Weiss in Charlotte, N.C.; Brock Vergakis in Newport News, Va.; David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md.; Deepti Hajela in New York; Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh; Stephen Dockery in Prospect, Conn.; and Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine.

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