Harbor Light Opening Reflects a Family’s Never-Ending Strength

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Like a phoenix risen from the ashes, the Harbor Light is finally open again. On Friday, October 18, the beloved bar, which many refer to as the local “Cheers,” opened its doors, closing a nearly seven-year chapter, just 11 days before the anniversary of the storm that started it all—Hurricane Sandy.

Throughout the opening weekend, the Harbor Light was packed, wall-to-wall, with neighbors, friends, family and just about everyone who had waited nearly seven years to enjoy a pint in the bar and restaurant, which burnt to the ground during Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012. For many, with the exception of some that still, seven years later, are not back in their homes after the storm, the opening of the Harbor Light brought a sense of closure to an event that at first seemed impossible to overcome. During the opening, the community celebrated that and so much more.

“When you come to a place like Belle Harbor, you see how much it means to people who live here, and when you have something that’s an icon that finally comes back in one piece, there’s something to celebrate there, and that’s what you’re seeing here today and you’ll probably see it for a long time,” Kevin Hurley, a patron and a cousin of the Heerans said on the front deck of the Harbor Light, as cars passed by, blaring their horns in celebration of the opening that meant so much to so many. But nothing can compare to how it feels for the family that gave their all to make it happen.

The new Harbor Light, with a beacon atop that can be seen from as far as the Marine Parkway Bridge, serves as a true testament to a family that has exemplified time and time again, Woodrow Wilson’s saying of, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Before Hurricane Sandy hit, the Heeran family thought they were prepared, but nobody could prepare for what Sandy had planned that night. “We expected to lose power. We over-ordered inventory, figuring we’d be so busy after the storm and we’d just be able to get the generators out. We brought up everything to the first and second floor, all of the beer and wine. We threw all the meat in coolers, figuring we’d still be able to use it after. We had to have had 100 cases of wine. We were ready,” Harbor Light owner Sean Heeran said. “Then the inevitable came. The red devil showed up.”

At around 11 at night on October 29, as flames quickly spread around Belle Harbor, word spread among the Heeran family that the flood waters damaging their homes, was nothing compared to what was happening to the homes of neighbors, and the family restaurant that had been in their lives since 1980. The Harbor Light was burning.

Realizing her brother, Bernie Heeran, was still inside the restaurant, where he lived on a top floor, the Heeran's aunt, Kathy Roberts and her daughter Deirdre, made their way through the floodwaters to see if he was alright. “When we got there, Bernie was coming out the door,” Roberts said. “You wouldn’t believe it. The cinder was like boulders. Fireballs were flying off the building.”

Unable to get back to her own home, Roberts said she took refuge with a neighbor, Mary Smith, whose son, Dylan, along with other neighbors, such as Michael McDonnell and Tommy Woods, were becoming the heroes their neighbors needed as surrounding homes turned to ash.

All of the Heerans and the neighbors around Beach 129th and Beach 130th made it through the night. However, the next morning, they all awoke to realize what didn’t survive.

“We were here at around 6 a.m. when the water receded,” Sean Heeran recalled. “It looked like something from the twilight zone,” Roberts said. As smoke still rose from the pile of ashes that was once the Harbor Light, reality set in. It was gone.

Yet all things considered, the Heerans say that night, they were lucky. “It could have been a lot worse. Our favorite mailman, Rick Gold, died that night,” Sean said. “Rick would come in every day and have a bowl of soup and a piece of bread before finishing his deliveries,” Roberts recalled. “He perished in his home that night.”

The restaurant was their greatest personal loss during Sandy, but the Heerans have endured losses of their own. When the family saw what Sandy had done to their longtime family restaurant, all that remained was, ironically, the fire escape, the front sign, and discovered two days later, the Mass cards for both Charlie Heerans—their grandfather who had passed away, and the grandson who was named after him, the Heeran brother who died in another tragedy—September 11, 2001. “The place where those Mass cards were in the building, how they survived that fire is a miracle. It was very weird,” Bernadette Heeran said.

Before there was Sandy, Rockaway was hard hit by yet another unthinkable tragedy—9/11. The community was one of the hardest hit by loss, with more than 70 neighbors killed in the tragedy. The Heerans were among those personally impacted. Charlie Heeran, 23, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center, was among the victims. Walter Hynes, an FDNY Captain who had first opened the Harbor Light with Bernie Heeran and Thomas Farragher, also died in 9/11. The Harbor Light’s chef, William Whelan, also lost his brother, Eugene Whelan, that day.

Two months later, tragedy struck again when American Airlines Flight 587 came crashing down into Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001. The impact missed the restaurant but was so close that Kathy Roberts says it knocked her down the stairs of the restaurant. However, even with the wounds of 9/11 still fresh in the minds of many in the community, the Heerans stepped up to the plate and immediately opened the Harbor Light as a makeshift triage center. “But unfortunately, there was no one to bring in,” Roberts said. All of the plane passengers died instantly, as well as five neighbors on the ground, including close friends of the Heeran family. “My brother, Charlie’s best friend, Chris Lawler was on the ground that day and he perished. Basically, two months later, while everyone was still grieving, this happens. Kathy Lawler, Chris’ mom and my aunt Kathy’s good friend also passed. The Concannons, Helen and Tom, were also good friends and used to come in here all the time,” Sean Heeran said.

Despite being faced with tragedy time and time again, the Heerans never gave up. After all, it was something that was instilled in them from a young age. “It gives you the drive to keep going,” Sean Heeran said. “My father, growing up, the man didn’t stop. He raised five of us and worked hours upon hours as a firefighter and to keep this restaurant going and put us through Catholic school and college.” However, Bernie Heeran always had help. From a young age, he taught his kids the value of hard work. “We were working here when we were little. We didn’t have a choice,” Bernadette Heeran said. The Heeran kids were all involved in the restaurant to whatever extent they could be, and following 9/11, when both Billy Heeran and Sean Heeran followed in their father’s footsteps of becoming  firefighters, they became involved even deeper, taking on more managerial roles and co-ownership of the restaurant.

That same work ethic is what would carry the Heerans through a seven-year nightmare ordeal of trying to rebuild their family’s legacy after it fell victim to Hurricane Sandy. “It took an army to do it, and we have the army, but we didn’t have a choice,” Bernadette McCann said. Even through having to deal with the flood damage within their own homes, the Heerans weren’t going to give up on the Harbor Light. “As dad says, keep moving,” Sean Heeran said. 

However the road to recovery was never going to be easy. The family was first hit with the immediate obstacle of being able to afford the rebuild. But they rallied. “The insurance money that came through was not even 20% of what we needed to rebuild. So we had to reach out to friends, to family, to whoever. We all did what we could with whatever we had to get it done,” Sean Heeran said, adding that the financial burden has left the family with heavy debt.

Then came the matter of rebuilding. “The City basically said we had to build what we had, but our building was made in the early 1900s and it was 2016 and four different buildings codes had been introduced, so everything had to be bigger—hallways, ADA bathrooms, staircases, everything,” he said. Having to go bigger then created its own challenges. “If we wanted more square footage, we had to go before the Board of Standards and Appeals and that became a four-year battle alone,” Heeran said. “They really worked hard with us and we worked really hard on our case and eventually we won, but it took four years.”

Meanwhile, in that time, life went on. During those hard years came personal reasons to celebrate. For Bernadette, this meant an engagement, a marriage, and two kids. For Sean and Billy Heeran, this meant a promotion with the FDNY, Sean, promoted to Captain, and Billy promoted to Lieutenant. However, in that time, also came more loss. Their mother, Barbara Heeran, died suddenly on April 22, 2018. “She never saw the inside,” Sean Heeran said.

Through that time, the family was uplifted by the support of the community in their struggle to finally open the Harbor Light’s doors. “I commend everybody from Rockaway because the turnout was unbelievable. From the signatures on petitions, to friends reaching out, there was a tremendous outpouring of help for us and we thank the people of this community every day,” Heeran said.

The new Harbor Light reflects the openness and warmth of those who fought to rebuild it, and the many customers that were ready to visit again. The large rooms, bearing various repurposed wood on the walls, gives the feel of an old barn, and in some areas, brings memories of an old Irish cottage—a place for families to gather around and enjoy the craic.

However, the walls also bear memories of the Heeran family’s and the community’s past. A stairwell to the bathrooms holds shelves full of photos of loved ones from the community who died on 9/11. Another wall has a tribute to Hurricane Sandy hero, the late Dylan Smith. A window holds a photo of Charlie Heeran’s name engraved on the 9/11 Memorial’s reflecting pools. And another wall by the bar, has a large photo of Charlie Heeran himself, holding a giant beer stein and smiling upon all of the bar’s patrons. While some of the photos bring up solemn memories, they don’t detract from the overall cheerful atmosphere of the neighborhood bar. “We want this to be a happy place. We have the big picture of my brother in the bar because was happy there,” Sean Heeran said.

The smiles within the Harbor Light have been evident since the bar opened, and that isn’t just because of the full stock of beer, wine and liquor. The smiles reflect the feeling of having a neighborhood staple back. They reflect the joy for the Heeran family, who has overcome so much. They reflect the relief of the end of a long, rough chapter for this community—Hurricane Sandy.  And they reflect the many good things ahead.

Among those good things ahead are good food.  While the bar has been open since October 18, the Harbor Light kitchen is expected to open on Monday, November 4. And yes, some of the same great favorites, including chicken in a basket, will be making their way back to the new menu.

The hard part of re-opening the restaurant may be behind them, but the Heerans are now faced with the task of re-learning to operate a restaurant again, especially with new technologies in the mix. To help make the initial rush easier, the family is requesting that reservations be made at least a week in advance. Initially, the restaurant will be open for dinner, with a limited menu, while lunch and brunch will be introduced at a later time.

In the meantime, the Heerans are ready to get back into the swing of things. “Jesus take the wheel,” joked Bernadette. “It’s game on,” Sean Heeran said. And as Roberts put it…”the best is yet to come.”

The Harbor Light is located at 129-18 Newport Avenue. Reservations can be made by stopping at the restaurant or by calling 718-474-2202.

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