Remembering Michael McDonnell

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When Jim DiBenedetto and Katie Cregg moved in to their Beach 130th home in 2011, they were welcomed to the neighborhood in an unconventional way, by a man with a personality too big for this world. “On the second day we were here, I looked outside the window on my deck and there were two men sitting on the porch, having a cigarette. One of them opens up a fridge outside, pulls out two cans of beer, and they sit there, drinking,” Jim DiBenedetto recalled. “I walk outside and say hello. They introduced themselves. One was Michael McDonnell, and another was a neighbor from across the street. They explained that they had been coming here for years to have a cigarette and beer. What a heck of a way to meet your neighbors.” Curiosity ensued. “I opened up a beer and sat down,” DiBenedetto said. It was in that initial conversation, that he learned his seemingly intrusive new neighbor, McDonnell, had grown up in the house that DiBenedetto just bought, and old habits died hard for this man who was now living in an attic apartment next door. But the laughs that ensued from McDonnell’s stories made DiBenedetto realize that McDonnell, would become more than a neighbor. From there, a deep friendship began that led McDonnell to calling his new neighbors by another title—“he started calling us his other parents,” DiBenedetto’s wife, Kathy Cregg, said. It wouldn’t be long after they moved in, that the DiBenedettos would give McDonnell another title—a hero.

On the night of Hurricane Sandy, as the ocean met the bay and floodwaters filled the streets, the last thing on people’s minds happened—fire. Flames broke out on Beach 129th and as they did, Beach 130th resident, Michael McDonnell, got to thinking, and he immediately sprang into action. At first, he helped guide his longtime landlord, Bruce Bavasso and his wife, Janet, next door, to his childhood home, now occupied by his new neighbors and friends, Jim DiBenedetto and Kathy Cregg. But as the fire spread, jumping to Beach 130th Street and consuming his current home, and then his childhood home, McDonnell didn’t hesitate on what would come next.

Neighbors across the street alerted the Bavassos, the DiBenedettos and McDonnell to join them in their homes, untouched by the flames. However, as the fires raged, so did the floodwaters, creating a river with a strong current that could sweep them under while trying to cross Beach 130th Street. How would they safely get across? Michael McDonnell had the answer. “He came up with the idea of getting some ropes together to make a tether,”  DiBenedetto recalled. “He already had a plan,” Cregg said. Using rope that had been used to tie down their porch furniture, McDonnell began constructing his rope ladder, but it wouldn’t be enough to reach across the street. So, the next idea? Extension cords. The group entered the DiBenedetto’s basement and gathered what they could to extend the rope.

What came next was the conundrum of how to get the rope across the street. That’s when another would-be hero, Dylan Smith, came paddling out on his surfboard from his home across the street.” Dylan showed up on his surfboard and brought the line across the street to Tommy Cann’s house,” DiBenedetto said. Then, one by one, the group started to make their trek across the road.

As Cregg waited her turn to cross, she tried to take action by pulling herself across. Instead, she was met by McDonnell, who found time to make her laugh in the midst of chaos. “I’m pulling and kicking and he goes ‘Stop pulling so hard!’ He was worried that the cables would come apart. I remember laughing and he said, ‘I’m taking you across personally.’ In the midst of all of this, he still found a way to make you feel special,” Cregg said.

He also had time to remember things that would later come in handy. “He said to me, ‘did you get your insurance papers out of the house?’” DiBenedetto said. “It’s the last thing I was thinking of at the moment, but that was Michael. He could react to any situation and think of all of the angles.” As fire engulfed the porch, Smith and Bavasso’s son, worked to put it out, so that DiBenedetto could make it to the attic to grab his insurance papers.

All in all, McDonnell and Smith’s quick thinking and actions, helped them bring six neighbors to safety. As they huddled together in the Cann house, McDonnell noticed Cregg’s distressed expression. “I said, the cats are still in the house,” Cregg recalled. McDonnell was ready to spring back into action to retrieve the felines. “Where are they?” he said. But as the DiBenedettos watched their house burn beyond repair, Cregg knew it was too late. “He was so ready to leave right then and there, but I told him no,” she said.

While saving the cats was an impossible task, McDonnell didn’t stop making sure everyone else was okay. “He was like the captain of the ship,” Cregg said. “He helped everyone stay calm,” DiBenedetto added. And once he knew everyone inside was ok, McDonnell continued his work. “He left all night long. He checked on all of the neighbors on the block,” DiBenedetto said. “And he came back with a bottle of liquor every now and then,” Cregg added.

On the night of Hurricane Sandy, Michael McDonnell was no doubt, a hero. Seven years after the storm, on December 23, 2019, that hero’s tragic tale came to an end. At age 58, after a 25-year battle with skin cancer, Michael McDonnell died. The date was as significant as October 29, 2012. Seven years earlier, on December 23, 2012, McDonnell’s co-hero, Dylan Smith, died while surfing in Rincon, Puerto Rico. Forever united in their efforts to save neighbors on the night of Hurricane Sandy, the heroes were once again connected by the date of their deaths. The connection did not go unnoticed by their neighbors. "It's very peculiar, but special. I think Michael would be very happy with sharing that with Dylan,” Cregg said. “I think there was a connection there. I think it was that Rockaway surfing connection,” DiBenedetto said.

In the seven years that the DiBenedettos got to know Michael McDonnell, they learned that he, like Dylan Smith, had a love of surfing. It was a hobby that brought McDonnell to try out the waves of California, Hawaii and beyond. The DiBenedettos believe all that time in the sun may have also contributed to McDonnell’s longtime battle with skin cancer. In the later stages, that cancer would lead to a series of intense surgeries, including a forehead transplant. McDonnell was often seen with a face covered in bandages, but to anyone who spent time with McDonnell, those bandages became invisible as his personality shined through, even in his battle. “He was sometimes self-deprecating because he wanted to give people something to laugh at. He called himself Frankenstein,” Cregg said. “But within three seconds, you didn’t even notice it because of who he was. He had such a great personality that you got over it immediately.”

“He knew how to make lemonade from lemons,” DiBenedetto said. “He always had that attitude that things would be good. He faced a 25-year battle with cancer, but he never lost his drive, his optimism, and his sense of humor, and he was as funny as you can get.”

Giving an example, DiBenedetto recalled the Christmas after Hurricane Sandy, when they were relocated.  “We were in Brooklyn, and on Christmas day, he came through the door, and immediately found a place to hang up a hilarious gift to us,” DiBenedetto said. The gift? A Santa Claus that could climb a cord hanging from a light fixture. The gift served as a reminder of having to climb McDonnell’s rope bridge to get to safety on the night of Hurricane Sandy.

As the DiBenedettos demonstrated the gift a few days after Christmas, they recalled more memories of the man who always had them laughing when they had him over for dinner, while watching Yankees games, or simply to enjoy a drink with them, even though he had moved off of Beach 130th Street.

Bruce Bavasso, McDonnell’s landlord prior to Hurricane Sandy, who knew him and his family since McDonnell was in his 20s, spoke about the many hats he wore. “He was a great fisherman,“ Bavasso said. “He’d be by the bay, right up against the railing. He knew exactly when to go and where to go. That’s how he was,” adding that McDonnell wouldn’t hesitate to share the day’s catch with neighbors.

McDonnell was always full of surprises, and even shared his talent of magic with his neighbors. “He was a magician,” Bavasso said. “He had the doves and the rabbit and he was always doing something to make his magic better for parties and the shows he did. The dedication and passion he put into it was amazing,” Cregg said.

Although he had no children of his own, Cregg says McDonnell knew how to entertain the kids in their family or his nieces or nephews. “He just had with the kids. He left their mouths agape, wondering what he was going to do or say to make them laugh. He charmed them.” That charm would have an effect on everyone.

“He had the gift of gab. He never spoke a bad word about anybody,” Bavasso recalled. “Michael could sell you sand in the desert.” That ability made him success as a sales manager for Chefs Diet, which he mostly did prior to Hurricane Sandy.

A few years after the storm, McDonnell put his skills as a handyman and painter to work, something he mastered. “He was meticulous,” Cregg said. “He was always there when you needed something. He was a very strong person. Through all of his illnesses and cancer, he never complained. He’d have a surgery and he’d be up the next day, painting houses. Nothing stopped him,” Bavasso said.

While painting kept him afloat, in 2018, after McDonnell underwent an intense forehead transplant, DiBenedetto started a GoFundMe campaign for his friend. Knowing McDonnell’s story of heroism, Rockaway rallied. “We raised closed to $14,000 in three weeks. The people in Rockaway were amazing in coming together for him,” DiBenedetto said.

However, Rockaway came together for a man they knew well. “He was the epitome of a Rockaway guy,” DiBenedetto said. Upon hearing the news of McDonnell’s passing, locals flooded social media pages with words describing the man they would see driving around in his blue pickup truck, riding his bike, or frequenting one of his favorite establishments like Rogers or the Harbor Light. "Kind," "the biggest heart," "positive," "friendly" were among some of the most used.  Those sentiments were shared by his neighbors, who say Michael McDonnell, will truly be missed. “It’s going to be a little quieter here. There will be a little less laughter. But as I said, after we lost the house, they can take away your house, but they can’t take your memories. We have those memories of Michael and he will always live on in our minds,” DiBenedetto said.

A memorial Mass for Michael McDonnell will be held on Monday, January 13, 11 a.m. at St. Francis de Sales Church.

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