Superstorm Sandy Takes Young Victims in Prime of Life

Jessie Streich-Kest and friend were crushed by a tree while walking her dog.

November 1, 2012, 3:10 PM

Nov. 2, 2012— -- Jessie Streich-Kest and her friend Jacob Vogelman, both 24, died underneath the weight of a fallen tree in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Monday night, while walking her dog, Max, in the midst of superstorm Sandy.

The bodies of the young victims were found the next day, as residents up and down the East Coast began to tally their losses in a storm that has now taken at least 80 lives, 41 dead in New York City alone.

Two-year-old Max, a pit-bull mutt Streich-Kest had rescued from a shelter, survived with head injuries and was taken to a local veterinary hospital.

Max's dog walker, Tom Salgo, who is studying exercise science and has his own recording studio, said he learned about the deaths in an online news story, and was trying to understand the tragedy that struck so close to home.

"Around the time it happened, there were trees falling all over the place," said Salgo, 24, who was at home in the neighborhood during hurricane-force winds and was receiving emergency alerts about the weather on his cellphone.

"I think she was doing the right thing by Max and was just unlucky," he said. "She figured he was cooped up all day and needed a walk. I wish they hadn't done that. I wouldn't think she would go out there without good reason. But for whatever reason, they weren't thinking they were at risk."

Like them, many of the victims were young, embarking on new career paths when their lives were cut short.

"The family is devastated," said Bob Master, a family friend. "There is nothing worse than losing a child. She was a spectacular kid, really just coming into her own with a new career as a teacher. She had made a huge impression already. And she had this dog she was madly in love with."

She was the daughter of activists. Her father is Jon Kest, executive director for New York Communities for Change, and her mother works for the United Federation of Teachers and is a community organizer.

Streich-Kest, who had grown up in Brooklyn and gone to high school with Salgo, was a teacher at Bushwick High School for Social Justice.

She had trained through a Hunter College program funded by the Annenberg Foundation and had just had her first parent-teacher conferences.

Streich-Kest had previously done activist work with New Yorkers for Clean, Livable & Safe Streets and had protested the city's horse-drawn carriages.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, she worked with Penn Haven, an anti-poverty student group devoted to serving the city's homeless.

"Jessie was very friendly and laid back, but she was also driven," Spago said. "She went to school in Bushwick every day with students who were difficult. She had some sort of drive to help them, despite the obstacles in the way. She got along with anybody."

College friends told the local Ditmas Park Corner newspaper that she had a "warm heart" and tried to leave a "positive mark on the world." They remembered her buying a homeless mother baby formula and diaper, "out of the blue."

Vogelman, a close friend she had known since middle school, had a degree in theater design from SUNY Buffalo, and was studying at Brooklyn College.

Another young victim of Sandy ran a home business as a make-up artist, but was also striving to be a social studies teacher as a student at Lehman College in the Bronx, N.Y.

Lauren Abraham, 23 and known as "Lola," was electrocuted by a downed power line as witnesses watched her body burn.

Make-Up Artist Burned in Front of Neighbors

At about 7 p.m. Monday, Abraham went outside on a wet, rainy street to take photos and stepped on a snapped electrical wire, catching fire and burning for about 30 minutes before help arrived.

Her close friend, Elpidio Nunez, told The New York Times, "She was a beautiful girl, very carefree, she was never depressed. I had never seen her cry."

Louise Dunkley, a neighbor who did not know Abraham, told that the weather was fierce at that hour. "We had no lights and no heat," she said. "Otherwise, I give God thanks we are alive. I still haven't been outside."

She was told about the horrific scene by others. "The wire was down and she touched the gate," she said

And in Queens, 29-year-old Tony Laino, described as a "go-getter, always looking to improve himself," was killed after a huge tree crashed through his two-story house, pinning him in his bedroom during Monday night's storm.

"The mother came outside screaming," neighbor Howard Senior told the Queens Courier. "There were trucks, lights, all sorts of emergency vehicles. It was a mob scene. Somebody went upstairs, but there was no noise from the room. They didn't hear a thing. It just crushed him."

Laino, who was a driver for Ace Party & Tent Rental, lived with his parents and one of two brothers, who told the newspaper, "He was an amazing person. He always wanted to help people. He was a great man."

Others killed included 28-year-old New York City police officer Artur Kasprzak, who drowned in his basement after rescuing seven members of his family, including his 15-month-old son, girlfriend and father in Staten Island.

After sending the family to the attic where they would be safe, he went back down to the basement and never returned.

His commanding officer, Dep. Insp. Edward Winski told the Daily News, "He was really a great guy, well-liked, very professional and hard working. It was very difficult this morning when I had to tell everyone. It's heartbreaking, to be honest with you."

Now, days after Sandy, family and friends are preparing for funerals, including ones in Brooklyn for Jacob Vogelman Friday and Jessie Streich-Kest Sunday.

Valerie Yawien, who knew Streich-Kest from high school in Brooklyn and Vogelman from college in Buffalo, where she was a musical theater major, was devastated by the deaths.

"Jessie was incredibly smart and humble," said Yawien, 24.

"Jacob was the first person to arrive at a test or a rehearsal," she said. "He was incredibly dedicated and talented and always had a smile on his face. He was extremely positive."

At SUNY, he had volunteered to categorize the prop warehouses, "a daunting task," according to Yawien. "Nothing was too big a challenge for him."

She learned about the deaths later Tuesday because her own family did not evacuate and were trapped on the third-floor of their apartment in Sheepshead Bay.

"I had already been thrown off by how devastating [the storm] was," Yawien said. "My world was totally turned upside down, literally seeing the bay and looking straight into the boats overturning and the swans huddling together to survive and the waves rolling into the street."

She said the deaths of her young friends "is so random and so unexpected and so unfair."

"In the past few days, I have really changed my perspective and it's jolted me back to what is important in life," Yawien said. "I feel very strongly about celebrating life and being genuine how you are and being there for other people. Unfortunately, it's the same emotion we had during 9/11."

Streich-Kest's friend Tom Salgo, who walked her dog Max with his twin brother, Nick, is also shaken and worries about how the dog will cope with the loss.

"She was a big dog person," he said. "He was her best friend.

"We saw Max five days a week," he said. "I saw him on Friday. ... I got a text a week from her about her dog.

Now, Salgo wants to make sure that her Max -- a Disney-like dog with "orangey fur and a white face" -- is recovering and well taken care of.

"The word is senseless," he said of the tragedy. "It's pretty unreal."

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