Steve Schoenly looked up and down John Street in East Rockaway last Sunday, noting what had changed and what had remained the same since he and his brother, Howard, grew up there in the 1960s and ’70s. The houses were not as tall back then, and the road has since been raised, but Schoenly could still point to where he and Howard played football and Little League baseball.
“I just have so many memories,” Steve said during a ceremony to rename the street Howard J. Schoenly Way, in memory of his brother, who died at age 50 aboard the SS El Faro in September 2015.
The Schoenly family moved out of East Rockaway in the 1980s, but still have many ties to the community. Later in life, Howard got a job as a ship engineer for TOTE Maritime, transporting household goods between Jacksonville, Fla., and Puerto Rico. A trip took only a week to complete, but when Howard left Jacksonville aboard the El Faro three and a half years ago, he never returned. The ship headed straight into Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 storm, and went missing on Oct. 1, 2015.
In the weeks that followed, as the Schoenly family anxiously awaited information about Howard’s fate, the East Rockaway community came together. Reel, a popular local bar, hosted a candlelight vigil on what would have been Howard’s 51st birthday on Oct. 8, and the American flags at East Rockaway Village Hall and the East Rockaway American Legion were lowered to half-staff.
Then, when the Coast Guard found the ship at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea on Oct. 31 and determined that nobody on board had survived, Deputy Mayor Theresa Gaffney suggested renaming John Street in memory of Schoenly.
The renaming, however, did not happen until more than three years later. Last November, Steve contacted Mayor Bruno Romano to see if the street could be dedicated to his brother, which Romano said would be “very appropriate.”
Village officials worked in recent weeks to organize a street-renaming ceremony. Romano invited Howard’s family and friends, and Trustee Rich Bilello contacted local veterans’ organizations to perform the ceremony.
More than two-dozen East Rockaway residents, Howard’s friends and family members, veterans and elected officials gathered in front of the municipal garage on Fifth Avenue to watch as Steve climbed a ladder and unveiled the sign for Howard J. Schoenly Way.
“Howie would love this — he had a little bit of an ego,” joked Steve, who is now 50. “He would really enjoy this, and I know he’s looking down on us, thanking everybody.”
As part of the ceremony, the Veterans’ Honor Guard presented the colors, and midshipman bugler Anthony Burzinski played taps. Romano also presented Steve with a copy of the new street sign and spoke about the significance of the day.
“The renaming of John Street will be a reminder for all of us, generations to come, of his being here and [of] Howard,” Romano said. “He will never be forgotten.”
The El Faro left Jacksonville on Sept. 29, 2015, with a crew of 33. It was battered by heavy winds and waves up to 40 feet high. The Coast Guard later determined that the ship sank in 15,000 feet of water and that everyone on board died.
In April 2016, a U.S. Navy salvage ship, the USNS Apache, located the El Faro’s voyage data recorder, which is like an aircraft’s black box. The recorder captured the captain’s radio transmissions that day. According to a 510-page transcript of the recording, released in December 2016, Capt. Michael Davidson was asked to change course, but said he thought he could avoid the hurricane by sticking to his route. Eventually, he was forced to sound the alarm to abandon ship.
In 2017, Steve Schoenly told the Herald that his brother’s death had made him more spiritual. After Howard’s death, Steve spent a night looking for a sign that his brother was all right, when his favorite song, “Running to Stand Still” by U2, came on the radio.
“I always feel like he’s watching me,” Steve said. “Even now. I’m pretty spiritual, and I think that he’s watching out for me and saying, ‘Keep up the good work. I’ve got your back still.’”
Mike Smollins contributed to this story.