How a hero of Hurricane Sandy turned to heroin


Cassandra Vitale watched closely in October 2012 as Super Storm Sandy roared up the Eastern Seaboard toward the Jersey Shore.

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From her home in Fort Lauderdale, Vitale — smart, opinionated, a bossypants, if you want to know the truth — warned her family and friends living on the Shore. They were in the bullseye of a monster hurricane.g

“She kept calling saying, ‘You’re not ready, this is going to be bad,’” said her mother, Dawn Vitale.

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It was worse than bad.

The storm leveled wide swaths of the Shore, the place of Cassandra’s childhood memories, for which she felt a fierce protectiveness.

As soon as she could, the 26-year-old jumped on a plane and headed into the chaotic aftermath to help.

She talked her way past police barricades to hand out buckets of cleaning supplies to devastated residents of hardest-hit Ortley Beach in Ocean County.

She called her single-handed effort “Bucket Brigade NJ.

For a year, she and her volunteers worked on hundreds of homes. They shoveled off the sand that buried the beach community. Cassandra became the crusading arbiter between those who had something to give and those who needed help, providing hot lunches and scrounging furniture and winter clothes for residents who had lost everything.

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“I went down to see her one day and she was grumbling, saying, ‘They don’t follow directions,’” said Dawn. “I said, who are you talking about?’ She said, ‘the Red Cross.’”

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Cassandra told a TV reporter, “I grew up on the beach, been a beach bum forever… I wasn’t sure how I could help, but I found my niche here.”

She worked at a furious pace, sometimes, going without sleep for days.

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“She’s one of those people who put everyone else first, she didn’t care about how she had to live at the time, peeing in a bucket, staying in the van and sleeping on couches,” said Joe Minnella, a filmmaker whose documentary, “After Sandy,” is dedicated to Cassandra.

Ocean County named Cassandra Vitale Woman of the Year for 2013.

But when the 24-hour-a-day intensity of the Bucket Brigade started to wind down more than a year later — when Cassandra’s fierce drive was no longer needed — she felt hollowed out, says her brother, J.R. Vitale.

He says she filled the void with heroin, which in Ocean County is almost as easy to buy as a six-pack of beer, according to J.R., who has also struggled with addiction. He’s lost at least 10 friends to heroin in the past year, he said.

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After rehab and a subsequent relapse, Cassandra returned to Florida for a second round of rehab, this time in Delray Beach.

For a while, she was clean.

By the summer of 2015, Cassandra was excited about a new job and had a nursing student boyfriend.

“Feeling loved,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

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In 2015, one person died roughly every other day from a heroin-related overdose.

A few days after she turned 29, Cassandra joined that devastating list. She died in a shabby house she’d rented on West Palm Beach’s north end, with fentanyl-laced heroin in her blood.

Near her feet was a pink makeup bag of syringes.

The pink bag was imprinted with the image of a skull.

***

Cassandra’s older brother thinks he knows why she couldn’t stay clean because, for a long time, he couldn’t either.

“We have this hole in our souls,” he said. “Something that’s hard to fill. There was always something missing.”

They talked about it sometimes on the phone late at night. They were that close, even though J.R. was seven years older.

In her family, Cassandra was always the good kid. The brilliant one with stellar grades and her pick of colleges.

She was a gypsy, said friends, a woman who took solo surf trips to Central America. For college, she chose the University of Miami, where she earned an international business degree.

Cassandra loved fishing, crabbing, and above all, the beach.

She and J.R. shared a taste for offbeat documentaries and indie movies.

He breaks into sobs remembering his sister.

“It wasn’t supposed to be her. I was the family (screw-up),” said J.R., who spent time in prison.

J.R.’s own addiction began a few years ago after he was prescribed heavy doses of OxyContin for pain from a rare cancer called paraganglioma.

“I was hooked in, like, a month,” said J.R., who lives in Brick, N.J., and works as a cook.

His doctor tried to wean him off the drug too rapidly, he said. He thinks his brain couldn’t handle the withdrawal.

“I was a mess. The thing about getting off opioids is that the boredom is ridiculous,” said J.R. “Your brain doesn’t have anything to do without the stimulation.

“Nothing is fun, you can’t watch TV or a movie or even listen to music. Then a friend gave me heroin. All of a sudden, I could function, I could go to work.”

For a while, Cassandra found fulfillment in the daily intensity of the Bucket Brigade.

“When that started stopping, she was grounded, stuck in this area surrounded by blight that still looked like a war zone. The excitement and urgency were gone,” said J.R.

He recognized the beginning of her addiction, but like everyone who knew her, couldn’t stop it.

She started with Percocet, he said. But the hole she was trying to fill was large.

“There was nothing to keep her busy. Nothing to throw herself into except heroin,” said Marissa Borsac, Cassandra’s best friend since first grade.

Cassandra re-connected with an old boyfriend who had been an addict. Borsac thinks he introduced her to heroin. After they broke up, he died of an overdose a year before Cassandra.

“She was addicted to him, but they were a toxic mix. Sid and Nancy, it was almost like that. They fought a lot, throwing things, breaking things. It was very volatile,” Borsac said.

To get her away from the boyfriend, Borsac and her husband brought Cassandra to live with them and their toddler daughter in their Toms River house the summer of 2013. With other agencies absorbing the work of the Bucket Brigade, Cassandra wasn’t needed every day.

“People hear a lot of things about heroin, that users are junkies lying in the street,” said Borsac. “Cassandra was never like that. Cassandra was really good about keeping things together.”

Until she couldn’t.

“She was so strong-willed, she felt resistant, that she could quit whenever she wanted,” said Borsac.

Borsac, with a second daughter on the way, could no longer ignore the signs. Cassandra was nodding off; her conversations became increasingly bizarre. Borsac found the tell-tale signs of heroin use — syringes and burnt spoons — in her house.

At the end of the summer, she ordered Cassandra to leave. Cassandra responded by passing out on the sofa.

Around the same time, Dawn found a syringe one day while washing her daughter’s clothes.

“I noticed Cassandra was going downhill,” said Dawn. “I told her, I want you to get this under control, knowing it wouldn’t be easy.”

She and her ex-husband got Cassandra into a New Jersey rehab center and crossed their fingers.

Cassandra followed the program and got out. She relapsed.

“I’ve tossed it around in my mind so often,” said Dawn. “Did I not make it seem serious enough? Could I have done a better job?

Her family thought a return to South Florida might help. Delray Beach seemed to be the epicenter of rehab centers and halfway houses.

“At every stoplight up here, there are signs on the telephone poles with phone numbers for rehab centers in Delray Beach,” said Dawn. “And Cassandra loved Florida.”

After rehab and a halfway house in Delray Beach, Cassandra moved in with her grandmother in Boca Raton.

By early summer in 2015, she seemed stable. For reasons her family doesn’t understand, she rented part of a house in a rough neighborhood west of Broadway in West Palm Beach’s north end.

When J.R. visited, he was shocked at the rundown street filled with old cars and unkempt houses.

“That was Cassandra,” he said. “She liked that little bit of walking the line. She liked shaking the devil’s hand.”

When he returned to New Jersey, J.R., who has a 9-year-old daughter, overdosed and almost died. It was the push he needed to try rehab again.

J.R. was in treatment in July, when Cassandra got a job with a Palm Beach Gardens company that sells fuel oil to cruise ships.

She seemed excited, even hopeful. She had a nurturing boyfriend, who bought her favorite Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip cookies.

J.R. graduated from rehab on a Thursday in late July. That night, he and his mother called Cassandra, who sounded healthy and happy.

Late the next day, Dawn noticed her cellphone was full of messages from the West Palm Beach police.

He daughter died alone on her bed, holding a cellphone, a used needle and burnt spoon next to her, near empty capsules holding a grey powder.

Her family believes she had received her first paycheck that day.

“Maybe she thought she could do it once more and put it down,” said Dawn.

She was clean, without an addict’s drug resistance, so the shot of heroin cut with potent fetanyl was more than her body could tolerate.

J.R. thinks he understands what happened to his sister: “She got money, she went out and said, ‘Let me put my feet in the water,’ and she fell in.”

***

Wearing a hot pink Bucket Brigade sweatshirt, Cassandra still smiles from the group’s Facebook page where grateful residents thanked her for providing help and sanity in a world blown apart.

“We will never forget what Cassandra did for us!”

“Just know that you and your group made such a difference in so many lives!”

“Your tireless devotion to the folks affected by the storm was so inspiring.

“She was doing all these wonderful things on heroin,” said Borsac. “Imagine what she would have done if she stayed clean. The possibilities for her life were endless.”

On Cassandra’s birthday in late July, Dawn went over to Ortley Beach, where the Bucket Brigade supply trailers still stand.

“I pictured myself walking into her office, like she was still there,” said Dawn. “I tried to reflect on all the good she did. I’ll never understand why it wasn’t enough.”

In life, Cassandra couldn’t save herself. But in death, this Hurricane Sandy hero managed one more rescue.

“Cassandra’s death has kept me clean,” said J.R. “I haven’t touched (heroin) since she passed away.”

He’s crying so hard into the phone he can barely speak.

“This was her final gift to me, her final lesson,” he said. “I have to stay clean because otherwise it means she died for nothing.”


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