Hurricane Sandy cut a swath of death and devastation across the northeast, reducing homes and hard-earned dreams to rubble – but also inspiring bold acts of heroism and small gestures of kindness as neighbors and strangers reached out to ease victims' distress. Facing homelessness, fear, and the loss of beloved communities, the survivors of superstorm Sandy share amazing tales of heroism and grit in a 12-page Special Report featuring dramatic photos and stories in this week's issue of PEOPLE.

A Neighbor Saved Her Newborn Son: In New Dorp Beach, Staten Island, new parents Michelle Adamkiewicz, 33, and Gerard Campanaro, 37, were trying to wait out the storm when their neighbor, Peter Tacopino Sr., 50, ran over to warn them of a massive wave about to barrel down the block. Adamkiewicz, the mother of a 6-week-old boy, recalls panicking, then calling Tacopino's wife, crying, "You have to come get my son!" In churning chest-deep waters, Tacopino Sr. returned to her home, placed the baby atop his shoulder, then waded to his three-story house, straining not to fall. Still shaken Nov. 2, Adamkiewicz marveled at his bravery. "I owe them our life."

A Police Chief Helps Save 36: With the storm about to hit, Seaside Heights, N.J., police chief Thomas Boyd, 51, gave his men a simple directive. I said, 'Anybody who wants to leave, go. I'm staying.' Their response? "'Chief, if you're staying, we're staying,'" recalls Boyd. "They put their lives on the line for me." Of course, the veteran chief put his own life at risk as well. Riding in a truck with fire chief James Samarelli to evacuate the remaining residents just as the storm was making landfall, "the water started filling up the truck, and I told Samarelli, 'This is not a good situation here. If the water flips us, we're dead,'" says Boyd. Plowing onward, he and his team made 36 rescues. "We plucked one kid out of a tree," says Boyd. "We saved a 3-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a pregnant mother up in an attic. If we didn't rescue them, they would not be here today."

She Saved Critically Ill Babies: When generators at New York University's Langone Medical Center flooded and power was cut, Lori Touchette, 30, a nurse at the Congenital Cardio-Vascular Care Unit, knew they had dozens of tiny lives to save – quickly. While volunteers held flashlights, Touchette bundled a 2-week-old boy, delicately maneuvering down 15 flights of damp, slick concrete stairs while holding his breathing tube and manually pushing air through it into his fragile lungs. "After we got all the kids out," she says, "I just broke down. I was in awe at how we all came together."

They Battled Water and Fire and Won: With water rising to the roof of the Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department's station house in Breezy Point, Queens, firefighters escaped next door to the Breezy Point Clubhouse, where they found residents also stranded by the rising waters. Capt. Martin Ingram, standing in 3-ft.-deep water, led everyone in prayer shortly before raging winds blew burning embers the size of golf balls from one home to another. "There was a tidal surge flood, the wind of a hurricane and then a firestorm," says Ingram, 62. "Three natural disasters at once." Many of the team lost their own homes. "It's a miracle no one died in the fire," says fellow firefighter Tim Dufficy, 26. "That's something special."

The rest of PEOPLE's Special Report on Heroes of the Storm is featured in the November 19, 2012 issue, which is on newsstands nationwide now.

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