An inferno spread across a flooded neighborhood of Rockaway Peninsula in Queens early Tuesday, torching at least 80 homes as a potent mix of weather blasted the region.
Some 200 firefighters battled the six-alarm blaze in Breezy Point, which was fed by high winds and made more perilous by downed electrical wires, according to witnesses and local authorities.
"The winds were just devastating, blowing from one building to another," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference.
By daybreak, emergency personnel and local volunteers could be seen sloshing through flooded streets to put out patches of remaining flames while others assessed what had been lost.
Fire authorities reported three people were injured by Superstorm Sandy, though all injuries were considered minor.
"It was terrible," said Steve Mastrandrea, a Breezy Point resident and volunteer firefighter, who said he was "trying to give a helping hand and ... got trapped."
"We couldn't help anybody," he said. "I couldn't even help myself."
Floodwaters engulfed Mastrandrea's home and began to rise from his basement as the fire raged outside.
"We couldn't tell if the fires were 100 yards or a mile away," he said. "It was just so bright. I couldn't tell where it was.
"I thought we were going to have to jump in the water," he added.
Mastrandrea's home was largely destroyed as he fled with his family to higher ground.
"There's nothing here," he said. "Our homes can always be rebuilt. As long as we have our lives and we're safe."
The National Guard and other emergency personnel fanned out across the neighborhood. It's not clear what started the fire.
"I'm not sure where to go from here besides calling the insurance company," said resident Richard Kohlbrecher. "I've been down here most of my life. Through 'the Perfect Storm' ... the water got deep, but nothing like this."
The "Perfect Storm" is a reference to a 1991 "nor'easter" that got absorbed in Hurricane Grace, which then wreaked havoc along the East Coast and killed about a dozen people.
Meanwhile, some described the scene in Breezy Point as one of "total destruction."
"There is nothing in this one cluster of homes," resident T.J. Gilmartin told CNN. "And every house along the side that's still up is damaged. ... Even the sidewalk is ripped up."
Among the 80 homes destroyed was that of Bob Turner, a New York congressman.
"I, along with many other Breezy Point residents, lost our homes last night and I am grateful that my family and I are safe after this destructive storm," Turner said. " I hope you will join me in lending a hand to those who were less fortunate and keep everyone impacted by this storm in your thoughts and prayers."
In September, the same area endured severe weather as a powerful cold front brought heavy rain, high winds and a tornado into the beachfront neighborhood of New York City.