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Videos: Hurricane Ida kills 54; leaves a path of heartbreak, horror across 8 states

Emergency personnel deploy boats in N.J. as they work to evacuate residents stranded in their homes on Sept. 2, 2021. (Andrew Mills/NJ.com/TNS)
September 03, 2021

Water was coming in fast to Deborah Torres’ first-floor apartment in Queens, New York, late Wednesday. But even in the midst of her panic, she knew there were neighbors below her, including a newborn baby. Her landlord tried to get them out but it was too late — the three had died.

“I have no words,” she said. “How can something like this happen?”

Jeanine Zubrzycki, 33, hid in the basement of her Mullica Hill, New Jersey, home Wednesday night with her three children as she felt a twister shake her house and cause the lights to flicker.

“It just came through and ripped,” said Zubrzycki, 33. “You could just hear people crying.”

Earlier in the week, Andre Lagarde was driving on a dark road in Mississippi as Hurricane Ida blew through. Then the center line “just disappeared.”

“I really didn’t know what was happening until we were in (a) free fall,” he said. “It was horrifying. I thought we were going over a bridge.”

That was Monday night, when seven vehicles plunged into a hole as a rural highway collapsed. Two people were killed and at least 10 were injured in southeastern Mississippi.

Their stories are just a fraction of the untold suffering and horror caused as Ida made its destructive trek across the eastern United States. The storm has killed more than 54 people across eight states and its impacts have created dramatic nightmarish scenarios in the South and across the East Coast.

Trapped, she screamed as her daughter tried to stay afloat

Zuhelly Collado was showering Wednesday evening when she got the first clue something was wrong: her toilet was bubbling. Minutes later, her daughter screamed, “Mom, my bedroom is leaking!”

Water was bursting through seams in a brick wall like a sprinkler in her first-floor apartment in Clifton, New Jersey, about 10 miles north of Newark, New Jersey. She called family and started to panic as she gathered some belongings together, then water started pouring into her home through several closed windows.

From her bedroom, Collado saw her shoes floating away in the water that was now overwhelming her home as the remnants of Ida drenched the area and other communities across the Northeast.

“We have to go right now,” Collado said, looking over at her 9-year-old daughter, Kamila Gonzalez. As she readied for the door, her couch floated in from another room. Then the walls in her apartment started collapsing. Collado raced to get out but her door wouldn’t budge open. She was trapped and the water was rising quickly.

“The water was up to my neck and I was just banging on my door and screaming for help, for anyone to come help us,” Collado said. “My daughter was swimming and holding on to my shoulder because of how deep it was.”

That’s when a good Samaritan appeared with a building supervisor and together, the two men pried open the door and helped carry the pair outside.

“I was shaking. I felt like two more minutes in there and I wouldn’t have made it,” she said Thursday evening rummaging through the remnants of her destroyed belongings. She lost everything in the flood, including her car — which she found Thursday sitting on top of another in the parking lot.

A stranger offered her a pair of gold slippers since she didn’t have a chance to even grab shoes Wednesday night.

“It’s so strange but when you don’t have anything, something like this means the world,” she said. “Those golden slippers are like gold to me.”

Driving in the darkness then suddenly plunging into a sinkhole

When Andre Lagarde stopped falling, he found himself surrounded by darkness. He could feel the heat radiating from airbags as their fumes wafted up to his nose. A woman was shouting. He thought was dead.

He called out for his wife. After what felt like an eternity, she said she was OK.

“And that’s when the real panic sets in,” Lagarde said.

Half a dozen vehicles had plunged into the roughly 50- to-70-foot deep hole that had opened up along that dark stretch of Highway 26 in southeastern Mississippi in Lucedale late Monday night. As of Thursday, two people had died and seven others were hurt due to the massive hole erupting in the middle of the highway.

Lagarde and his wife were heading to Alabama after their New Orleans condo lost power. Lagarde said he was driving through heavy rains in the dead of night with his wife, their dog and cat when the centerline of the highway “just disappeared.”

“I really didn’t know what was happening until we were in (a) free fall,” he said. “It was horrifying. I thought we were going over a bridge.”

When their van finally came to a rest, they were surrounded by other wrecked vehicles. He and his wife were able to get to safety, and their pets were saved, too.

“I’m not going to forget how horribly scary it was,” Lagarde said. “The sounds of people crying out in the darkness, that’s not going to leave me, but the empathy and the kindness [of strangers that night]? That’s not going to leave me either.”

A twister nearly sucked one family from their home

Dozens of people — the governor of New Jersey, other men in suits, reporters with cameras and recorders — stood on Ashley Thomas’ front lawn Thursday morning.

But the pregnant mother, with her right foot in a fresh hospital brace, stood alone on her front walkway with her back to them.

Thomas couldn’t stop looking at what was — until 6:20 p.m. on Sept. 1 — her family’s 3,000 square foot, four-bedroom, 2.5 bath home.

“I don’t even know what you do with this,” she said, her voice wavering as she motioned to her home, now a pile of personal belongings and construction debris.

The Thomases were getting dinner ready and watching storm warnings Wednesday night when their cellphones buzzed with urgent alarms to take cover just before 6:20 p.m.

The family, Troy Thomas, Ashley, their daughters, Kenley, 6, Farrah, 3, and the family dog, huddled together in the basement.

It happened almost within moments. The family held on to each other in the corner and in what felt like seconds, the storm passed overhead in a mighty, but quick swirl that ripped the house apart. The roof was gone.

“It was just falling on top of us, just sucking us out of our basement and crashing on us,” she said, visibly traumatized recounting what they went through. Pipes burst as they held on. They were surrounded by darkness then suddenly exposed to the outside. “It was horrific,” she said. “It was out of a movie.”

The inside of the family’s home was visible to those on the street: The pink walls of one of her daughter’s rooms, a collapsed playpen and the white crib that was ready for their third child. Her 3-year-old daughter woke up Thursday and asked her, “Mommy, is our house still broken?”

“We’re safe, that’s all that matters,” she reassured herself before breaking into tears.

Contributing: Joel Shannon

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