As a New York City native, seeing the devastation left behind by Hurricane Sandy was especially difficult for south Charlotte firefighter Steven Williams.
“All of us saw on the news the hurricane hit the city, and once it was done, everybody called people they knew in the city,” Williams said. “I have family up there but they were fine. But everyone (in the region) was in need of the basic stuff that we take for granted.”
Watching on television as water rushed down the subway stairs he once walked was enough to motivate Williams to return to his hometown. So when he learned that a trip was being put together to bring firefighters from the area to New York City, he jumped onboard.
“It was weird seeing video footage of everywhere,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I used to walk up those stairs.’ It was weird seeing a city that busy just completely shut down. When it happened, I was stuck down here and there was nothing I could do.”
The team that set out on Nov. 15 was an assortment of men from all over the Southeast, and none of them knew each other, Williams said.
“There were 11 guys,” he said. “Ten firefighters and one contractor. They came from all over, two from Tennessee, one from South Carolina, from Raleigh and Kannapolis and Asheville. We all came together and we even picked up some guys on the way.”
Williams, 25, of Charlotte Fire Department Station 32 in Ballantyne, and a vanload of other firefighters took the trip up north into the heart of the hurricane’s damage, bringing with them an 18-wheeler full of supplies.
“They just needed the basics,” Williams said. “Especially those who lost homes and valuables and memories. I was happy that I went up there and helped out any way I could.”
On the morning of Nov. 16, after a long trip from Charlotte up to New York, Williams and his teammates unloaded and were split into groups along with New York firefighters and other volunteers. For two days the firefighters and other volunteers worked to remove damaged dry wall, insulation and flooring from houses and buildings flooded by Sandy.
“Two weeks later and we were pulling insulation out of walls that was still wet,” Williams said. “You could see the mold everywhere. There were places that we had to pull all of the flooring out, until we saw the ground underneath.”
Williams, who now lives in Indian Trail and has been a firefighter for four years, grew up in the Queens area of New York City. He said he was thankful for the volunteers who helped and for the citizens who brought the firefighters and volunteers food and coffee.
“They were just so thankful,” he said. “We were handing out blankets and supplies and one woman just started crying because she was so happy that everyone from miles away were there helping; that they weren’t forgotten. That felt good.”
The groups delivered construction supplies like new dry wall and installation to help repair damage, but also handed out blankets, clean water, bleach, tools, trash bags and other items to help victims get by in the aftermath.
For Williams, getting to help his hometown and work with people he had never met created bonds he won’t soon forget.
“For us in the fire department, we have this thing called ‘brotherhood,’” he said. “It’s just one big family of firefighters. No one on the trip knew anyone at all but now we’ve become such good friends and we’re finding each other on Facebook and sharing pictures. We’re all hoping for a second trip and that stuff like this will inspire people to volunteer when people are in need.
“Because you never know when this could happen to you. A lot of us are hoping for another chance to go up there and help.”