On September 16th, 2004, Hurricane Ivan made landfall onto Florida’s panhandle, and many stories were told afterwards of the amazing job that was done by Florida’s fire and rescue services. That same day, a full one thousand miles away, an equally heroic rescue was made by one of New York’s Bravest.
Although he is a ten-year veteran of the fire department assigned to Ladder Company 173, Firefighter Brian Sullivan had the day off that day, and was enjoying a leisurely ride on his bicycle along the boardwalk at 123rd Street in Rockaway, Queens when he heard screaming and shouts for help from the beach. Looking out onto the water, he saw three people in distress roughly 50-150 yards offshore, foundering in the extremely rough surf condition caused by the oncoming storm. A former city lifeguard assigned to Rockaway Beach, Firefighter Sullivan immediately and unselfishly entered the surf and swam out approximately 50 yards where he encountered the first victim, Luke Kelvin, a male teen in need of rescue. Sullivan wrapped his arms around the victim and swam him to the shore. Seeing that he was conscious and breathing, he left Kelvin on the shore and then re-entered the surf in an attempt to rescue the two other victims who were still in distress roughly 150 yards offshore. As he reached them, he realized that one of the two victims was unconscious face down in the water, and the other victim was foundering and unable to stay above water on his own. As Firefighter Sullivan worked to keep the unconscious victim’s head above water he was joined by a civilian, Kristen Bledsoe, who had swam out from shore with a Boogie Board to assist Firefighter Sullivan. Sullivan placed the unconscious victim face-up on the Boogie Board and instructed Ms. Bledsoe to keep his head above the water. Releasing his grip on the unconscious victim, Firefighter Sullivan then dove down underneath the surface of the water, where he then found the third victim, fully submerged and entangled in the legs of the second victim. With the assistance of Ms. Bledsoe, he was able to bring the third victim to the surface and place him on the Boogie Board as well.
At this point, members of Ladder Company 137 had arrived on scene and entered the surf as well. Two members of Ladder 137, equipped with life buoys, were able to swim to Firefighter Sullivan and Ms. Bledsoe and assist them in bringing the two victims to shore. These second and third victims, Jason Xia, a 17-yr-old male, and Aaron Cheung, a 15-yr-old male, were both removed to local hospitals in stable and critical condition, respectively.
At this point Firefighter Sullivan walked back up the beach to where he had placed his personal belongings before diving into the surf, approximately one and a half blocks away due to the ocean currents. Upon his arrival, he discovered that $330.00 that he had just withdrawn from the bank had been blown away into the wind due to the downdraft of a rescue helicopter that had come on scene. An honest civilian, who had witnessed Sullivan’s rescue, had happened to catch a $100 bill and returned it to him, but told him also that another bystander who had been on scene wasn’t as honorable: even after she had told the other civilian whose money it was, he simply pocketed the money and walked away.
When the local newspapers arrived, Firefighter Sullivan gave them his account of the incident and then simply and unselfishly went on his way.
Had Firefighter Sullivan not been on the scene, it is doubtful that all three of the victims in this incident would have been rescued. His Lieutenant, Joseph Fable, writes: “Firefighter Sullivan exhibited an individual act of personal bravery in conjunction with initiative and capability which led to the rescue of three victims who surely would have perished in the rough seas…[he] exemplifies the dedication to public safety and bravery that we as FDNY members aspire to.”