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SO MUCH MORE THAN
"THANK YOU"

Copyright December 6, 2001 The State (Columbia, SC).

It was a rare afternoon of joy for four grieving New York City firefighters who visited White Knoll Middle School on Wednesday.

There was a one-hour assembly with band music and applause versus three weeks of funerals and tears for fellow firefighters.

There were sounds of children's clapping and screaming with excitement, not the moans and screams of victims from the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

The four Brooklyn firefighters had come to say "thank you" to the 1,300 students who helped raise $ 520,000 to purchase a new fire truck for New York City.

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Thanksgiving 2001, the firehouse accepts check from SC students for new firetrucks

They got back so much more.

"I didn't expect it to be as emotional as this," said fireman Frank Losauro with a lowered head. "Every time I hear that list . . . it doesn't get any easier," he explained, alluding to the seven firefighters from his station who died at the World Trade Center.

Sixteen men from the Brooklyn fire house in the Red Hook community responded to the Sept. 11 attacks. Nine, including the four visitors, survived.

"This (trip) is like a little shining light," explained Lt. Tom Pigott, who can rattle off dates of birthdays and anniversaries the fallen firefighters have missed.

Three of the dead firefighters' children have had their first birthdays since Sept. 11. "From that day forward, there haven't been any good days," he said.

But this seemed to be one.

Schoolchildren were quick to hug the four strangers, and teachers and guests lined up to speak and pat them on their backs.

"I wish we could do more," said Kristin Teets, a seventh- grader after the assembly. "I wish we could go there (to New York) and thank each one of them for their hard work."

Children say the four men, who sat onstage, occasionally wiping away a tear, were more than special guests.

"It's amazing because they're such big heroes," said Kelly Sharpe, another seventh-grader.

The firefighters spent the morning playing golf at Lexington Country Club before arriving at the school, where anxious children and a table piled high with gifts awaited them.

A collection of firefighter-themed artwork had been painted and framed by a local artist. The picture had been signed by the entire student body and will hang in the Red Hook station.

Students also had made scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and letters and an 18-minute video of students sending messages to the firefighters who couldn't make the trip. And there was the red, white and blue afghan that teacher Karen Smith had spent 100 hours making.

"I thought it would be nice for their firehouse," Smith said. "I know it's cold up there. It was just my contribution."

Lexington Mayor Dan Breazeale presented them with a key to the town of Lexington.

And of course, they were given a check for nearly $ 153,000, increasing the total amount raised for the fire truck to $ 520,000.

The truck will be dedicated to the White Knoll students and the Red Hook firefighters who died, said Capt. Giordano.

"These seven men will ride this truck forever, smiling because of your tireless efforts and generosity," he told the students.

Wednesday night, the group attended an after-hours gathering with members of the Columbia business community.

They'll spend today visiting White Knoll classrooms, boating on Lake Murray and enjoying a cookout with Columbia firefighters.

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Captain
Tom Giordano

Friday morning, they'll board a train to return home. But they say they won't forget the White Knoll students waving miniature American flags as "Wing Beneath My Wings" was sung, or students read aloud the letters that accompanied donations from people from around the country.

"To see all these children here is really overwhelming," said Capt. Tom Calkins.

"The heart of America lives right here in Columbia, South Carolina."

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