Brooklyn's Red Hook firefighters build tribute to "Seven in Heaven"
By Stephanie Penick
Once a year, I jet halfway across the country for a day to take part in a family reunion of sorts.
The annual journey takes me to New York City, where I lived and worked from the time I was 21 until I was 33. My co-workers at an advertising agency owned by Jerry Della Femina were my family between my childhood and my marriage.
Each year Della Femina hosts an "Old Timer Party," a reunion for people who have worked in his various agencies since 1967.
This year, my one-day trip has left me with lasting images I never could have imagined before Sept. 11. Images of New Yorkers and their city, of evil and tragedy, of firefighters and bravery.
Before I left on my 16-hour trek, I called New York firefighter Al Nocella, one of the Red Hook Raiders featured in Daily Herald stories, to arrange a visit to the Brooklyn firehouse. Stationed just across the Brooklyn Bridge from the World Trade Center, the Red Hook Engine 202 and Ladder 101 companies were among the first to answer the emergency call on Sept. 11. All seven men of Ladder 101 were killed.
Since that morning, Naperville has joined other communities in raising money and support for the Red Hook families.
When I arrived in New York, I took a cab to the financial district and headed for the attack site. I joined dozens of other onlookers ignoring the rain to peer through an opening in the green make-shift fence surrounding the site. Feeling a mix of sadness, anger and love for my country, I observed evil and heroic goodness all at once.
A police officer kept everyone from stepping too close. He also directed us to a memorial at Trinity Church, two blocks away. The church's wrought iron fence was graced with photos, flowers, flags and banners emblazoned with affectionate tributes from around the world to the brave firefighters, police officers and innocent victims.
After my luncheon reunion, I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and made my way to an industrial area near the end of the Battery Tunnel. At 31 Richards St., I found the Red Hook Raiders, one of five firehouses in the 32nd Battalion in Brooklyn.
Nocella was unable to meet with me. In the rescue mission, he sustained a knee injury requiring surgery. The day I visited, he had a doctor's appointment.
Instead, firefighter Paul Brincat and Capt. Ed Kearon led me to the tribute they've created on one side of the garage to honor the "Seven in Heaven:" Lt. Joseph Cullickson and firefighters Patrick Byrne, Salvatore Calabro, Brian Cannizzaro, Thomas Kennedy, Joseph Maffeo and Terence McShane.
Like viewing the remnants of the World Trade Center, it's another moment I'll never forget.
In the kitchen, firefighters Joe Farinacci and Anthony Gerrara were stuffing thank you cards into envelopes and attaching mailing labels Brincat had printed. They showed me addresses from Naperville - many names were familiar.
Humbled by the attention they've received in recent months, they candidly re-created the morning they responded to the "1060" alert that sounded a major catastrophe.
"I'd never heard a 1060 emergency call in my 20 years with the department," Kearon said. "We couldn't begin to imagine what had happened."
One by one, they recounted events, explaining the bond among firefighters worldwide, now stronger than ever after six weeks of funerals and memorial services.
Kearon showed me an amazing new book called "Brotherhood," a compilation of pictures taken by 60 photographers during the days following the atrocious attack. Proceeds from the sale of the book will benefit the families of the 343 firefighters who died Sept. 11.
The firefighters' highest priority is to care for the children who lost their fathers.
"Most of us are Irish or Italian (descent), and most of us send our children to Catholic or parochial schools," Kearon said. "Keeping that tradition ... is probably our biggest concern."
Frank, witty, modest and truly grateful, they told how the tiniest mention of a need in the media resulted in truckloads of supplies - blankets, socks, gloves, even dog food for the canine corps.
Their daily routines didn't begin or end on Sept. 11. As most of us sat home, glued to television coverage, firefighters found extraordinary strength to deal with their grief. They carried on with their individual duties, standing alert for other emergencies, always prepared to put their lives on the line to save ordinary people.
As they expressed appreciation for every single kindness from around the world, I discovered resilient, dedicated, brave men who said they "still have the greatest job in the world."
I was overwhelmed by their heroism. And they don't expect much in return.
"We just hope people will keep us in their thoughts and prayers next week, two years, three years from now," Kearon said.
After a couple hours, I asked to call a cab for a ride to LaGuardia Airport. Gerrara's shift was nearly over and he insisted on giving me a lift.
He may have driven the van, but all the Red Hook Raiders gave me a lift.