As the holidays are upon us, the recent trip we just took to New York keeps coming to mind. Seeing the devastation made you thankful for what you have. It started out as a trip to help people in need and it turned into a life changing event. Months before Hurricane Sandy a couple of us were at work and a program came on called Secret Millionaire. On that show they featured a charity called Friends of Firefighters who help out members of the FDNY after 9/11. It moved us all to the point guys from all of the stations called each other and talked about it. Two events were planned which were a guest bartending event on 9/11 put on by firefighter Jeff Powell and a charity hockey game put on by firefighters Mike Mattern and Adam Ferrell. From the beginning there were plans to drive to New York to deliver the money raised and to help out at the charity for a day or two. As fate would have it Hurricane Sandy happened. As it was happening all involved knew this was the time we needed to go drive out there and help out. Once we received word that we would be able to go help we decided to put it out to the community and the community responded. The outpouring of support was amazing, we never in our wildest dreams thought we would get the response that we did. The night before we left we filled a large trailer with all of the donations. We had cloths, blankets, heaters, water, food, over $7000 and many more donations that we were able to take. As we closed the doors there was a sense of pride in the community we served. We realized that even though we were the ones going in body, we were taking the entire spirit of the community with us. It was humbling to all of us to be able to represent Dearborn in this relief mission.
We left at midnight on Thursday November 9th from fire station #2 on Outer Drive. As we set out the spirits were high on the RV, with all of us just chomping at the bit to get to work and help out. We drove through the night, taking turns sleeping and driving. As we came out of the Lincoln Tunnel the evidence of Hurricane Sandy was all around us. There were numerous utility trucks, sanitation truck and debris everywhere. The streets in Downtown Manhattan were still being pumped out, there was destruction everywhere you looked. There was still no power in a lot of the area as well, and many of the tunnels were closed too. As we drove past the new World Trade Center towers a chill ran down each of us, it was sacred ground. We finally made it around 1130am to the Red Hook section of Brooklyn where our charity Friends of Firefighters was located. The charity was started after 9/11 to help with the psychological and physical needs of members of the FDNY. They are a unique charity that helps all active and retired FDNY members at no cost. Many of the firefighters that day were not able to talk about what happened and that effected them mentally. This charity is located in a old fire house that was built in the 1800's, which is a big part of the way it helps firefighters. As firefighters we live at the fire house as much as we do at our own house. It is a place where we feel comfortable and with people we feel comfortable with. Friends of Firefighters offers peer and professional help to firefighters. The professional help is upstairs in private offices, where as the peer counseling is done in the kitchen of the fire house. This is important because the kitchen is where we always gather as a family twice a day to eat and talk, it is a place we feel comfortable. These are reasons are why this charity is so successful, they help the firefighters have a safe place to talk. When we got to the firehouse we were amazed at what we saw. The flood had destroyed the bottom floor of the friends of firefighters fire house, including the kitchen. The area did not have power and the building was only running on one generator, enough to power a couple lights and a small furnace. We unloaded all of the donations into the bay area and we couldn't wait to get to work. We all changed into our work gear which was donated to us by the amazing Dearborn Company Carhartt. We were directed by the charity to the Breezy Point and Rockaway area of New York which was one of the hardest hit areas. We were sent to help the mother of a FDNY member. As we crossed the bridge into the area the scene in front of us was hard to believe. To the left was a trash pile a quarter mile long and 3 to 4 stories tall, all of which was from the storm. We made a right to Breezy Point and the main road there was something out of a movie. Mounds of sand and debris were on each side of the road, most streets were covered with sand, debris and water. Houses on each side of the street were washed away, some were swept from their foundation and some were totaled. As we made it to our street we would be working on we saw houses crashed into other house, basements filled with water where houses once stood and people walking around trying to salvage any of their belongings. We pulled up behind a FDNY fire engine which was starting to remove a deck so they could work on a house there. Before the RV was able to stop we were jumping out to try to help, they were more then happy to have another set of hands to help with the task. With all of us working, the deck came down quickly and we moved onto our next stop. It was across the street and was the mother of a FDNY member, her entire house had been flooded and all of the walls needed to come down and thrown out so they could start to rebuild. All nine of us went to work at full speed to do as much as we could for these people. All nine of us were working as fast and hard as we could, it was impressive to watch the teamwork that was going on. No one was talking or making plans but we all knew what needed to be done and did it. In a matter of a hour and half we had the entire first floor ripped out and placed in the street for sanitation to pick it up. We knew we had a couple hours of daylight left and we wanted to help. We decided to pile in the RV and drive the streets looking for people to help. We spent the next couple hours going house to house doing whatever each resident needed us to do, the only thing that stopped us was the fact that we ran out of daylight. As we started back on our hour long ride back to the Friends of Firefighters fire house the days work we put in started to catch up to us, we were all beat. We parked the RV in front of the fire house for the night and took our cold showers by flashlight. Some of us slept in the RV and others slept in chairs, on sofas and others on the floor of the fire house.
The next morning we were all up by 8am making breakfast and getting going. We were directed by Friends of Firefighters to the Staten Island area which was in need of help. As we got near the area close to the water it was easy to see the destruction Sandy had done there as well. We stopped at a FEMA area to see if they were able to point us to an area which needed our help. They were unable to point us in the direction of need so we did the next best thing, we asked the residence. They told us of a tent set up in a neighborhood close to where we were that was setting up help for the area. We pulled down a street where houses were flooded out, there were telephone poles snapped in half, peoples belongings all over the road and streets that looked like rivers. We then saw a pop up tent with a card table with supplies around it. Inside was a lap top that they were taking addresses down for people who needed help and it was all run by the people in this neighborhood. We were directed to an area about a mile away. As we walked down this two lane road the scene was hard to take in, there were cars upside down in the middle of fields covered with debris. There were peoples cloths in trees that were waving with the breeze on each side of the street, and there was a odd silence in the area. We grabbed a ride on a pick up truck to the area where we were going to help and we split into two groups. One group worked on cleaning out the basement and belongings of a house on the corner that was totaled from water damage. The other group helped to clean out the damage and belongings of the first floor of the house across the street. We were able to do both houses in a matter of two hours, as we were cleaning up and putting our tools away a man walked up to us and asked if we would be able to help him with his house as well. He told us about what had happened to him during the storm. He said that he put his wife and child in a car a made them leave, not long after that he watched a wall of water come down his street. He ran to his second floor where he rode out the storm, he told us the water was up over the street signs. We took our tools back out of our trailer and went to work. We were able to clean up his first floor in no time so that he could start to rebuild. We packed out tools up and headed back to the Breezy Point/ Rockaway area to help a FDNY member at a house. When we pulled up we met John and Keith, both of them were members of the FDNY who were working on Keith’s grandmothers house. They welcomed us in and he said that he would like to gut the entire house before we ran out of sunlight. We all went to work at break neck speed, everyone there was doing as much as they could as fast as they could. We would finish one room and move on to the next with no stopping in between. No one said it but we all had the same goal which was to finish this house before we left. In a matter of hours we had the whole house down to the studs, the floors were tore up and the entire house was gutted. There was a massive pile of things we threw out in front of the house, the tough part was that most of it was this woman's life we were putting out at the curb. We were throwing out things that this woman had worked for, things that were her prized possessions and here we are throwing them into the street so a front loader could scoop it up and take it to the dump. As daylight faded away we finished the house, it was a big accomplishment for us to be able to help these guys and this woman. As we stood out front talking to them they asked us where we were staying. We told them that we were sleeping in a RV on the street in front of the Friends of Firefighters in Brooklyn and that some of us were sleeping in office chairs, on floors and on sofas. They were amazed that we would do that just so that we could help out in this area. They asked us if we had power and we told them that there was only a generator and we were taking cold showers by flashlight. They said hold on let us make a call. A couple minutes later they came back and said they had called their chief and had arranged for us to go to a fire house in Red Hook to get a hot shower. We all were amazed at the generosity of these guys and how willing they were to help us out, even when we didn’t ask for it. We drove to the Red Hook area to the fire house which was home to Tower Ladder 131 and Engine 279. As we walked up to the house the guys were just getting back from a call and they welcomed us in with open arms. They treated us like we were friends for years. There has always been a lot of talk about the Brotherhood in the fire service where no matter where you go, all firefighters are family. It was defiantly felt throughout the time we were at the fire house. While everyone took turns taking a hot shower we were able to sit in the kitchen and hang out with those guys. The interesting thing about this was the same conversation we were having in this house with the guys from the FDNY were the same conversations we have at work each day. There was busting chops and jokes being told, it was like we had worked with those guys before. We stayed and talked to them for close to a half hour after everyone was done showering. They offered to cook us dinner but we declined and let them eat their own dinner. One thing that touched all of us as we left was the memorial they had on the wall of the station of the men who died on 9/11 from that house. They had 5 firefighters killed that day, on the wall were plaques of the men, also a tool they found in the rubble that one of the men had carried in with him. The most chilling thing they had were the 5 fire coats of the men who perished that day hanging on the wall of the bay. We all took a minute to pay our respects to our brothers who lost their lives that day. As we left one of the firefighters caught us outside and actually told us the combination to the lock to get back into the firehouse tomorrow if we wanted another shower. We couldn’t say enough about the hospitality we receive from those guys at that firehouse. After a hot shower we were ready for bed, and none of us had problems falling asleep after the day we had.
Saturday started off early like the others, we were all up by 8am and working inside Friends of Firefighters to help with issues they needed addressed. As were were working Nancy who is the founder of the charity walked in and was amazed that we were working already. We asked her what we could do that would make the biggest impact there. Without hesitation she said the kitchen to be cleaned and ready to serve meals. She told us how the guys who helped build the kitchen and spent many hours there working haven’t been able to come to the house because they couldn’t bare to see the kitchen they had spent a lot of their time working and helping their brothers through tough times just destroyed. The other thing she said would help was putting shelves up to organize donations so that they could get them out quicker. She said she would go buy shelves, we told her we would rather build them for her she was amazed. Then we told her to leave and when she came back that night she would have a kitchen for the guys to come and have meals there and help each other through the tough times. When we said this a woman who is a hardcore new yorker just stopped and started crying and hugging us, it was an emotional moment for all of us. We got right to work, one group started building shelves and organizing items and the other worked in the kitchen. We washed every inch of the kitchen, washed every dish, every cup, every table and then put the kitchen back together. Around noon we took a break to do something we all felt was important to do not only as firefighters but more importantly as Americans. We set out to go to the ground zero 9/11 memorial. After a hour of subway travel we made it to the site. As we walked up the workers there saw us with our Dearborn Fire Department shirts on and escorted us to a separate line. They ushered us to the front of the line. As we walked to the site there was a somber mood among the group, all of us were recalling in our minds what happened there. No one really spoke to one another while we were in line, everyone was just looking around taking it in where we were. As we walked into the memorial and stood at the footprint of the World Trade Center tower there was dead silence even with thousands of people around. All you could hear was the water from the memorial. It took a couple minutes to wrap you head around where you actually were. You were standing at the burial site for thousands of people, you were standing in a place where so many lives had changed. As you looked at the names of the people killed that day you think that that person was someones, mother, father,son,daughter and loved one. We walked around and read most of the names, then we went and read all of the first responders who were killed. It was important for us to pay our respects to those who perished that day and to pay our respect to our brothers and sisters who were killed doing the job they loved to do. The magnitude of the memorial can not even be put into words, it is truly a life altering place to go. When we were done we made our way back to the Friends of Firefighters to work on our projects and to finish them up. Around 8pm Nancy walked in and just started crying. She was in amazement at what had been down in a matter of hours. She walked into a house with a full kitchen ready to have guys come in and sit down and get the meals and help they need. She also walked into shelves filled with donated goods all organized for her to distribute. We were so happy to have made these contributions to this charity, we were so happy to be able to give these guys a safe place to go amid all of this devastation. Nancy bought us real New York pizza for dinner to say thank you and we all ate in the new kitchen, where we sat and talked for a hour or so. She was still in shock that we were able to do all of that in a day, she could not say thank you enough. For a woman and charity that has done so much to help others, it was a honor for us to be able to help them out. We packed all of our things in the RV and trailer for the ride home. We left New York at 10pm and drove through the night to get home. As we pulled back into station 2 we couldn’t believe it was all over. None of us that got off that RV were the same as we were when we got on it.
Looking back, the entire trip was life changing and was a once in a lifetime experience. The hope and resilience we saw from the residence in New York was uplifting and to see everyone come together to help each other out really showed the good there is in this world. You look at these people who have nothing left, their entire life was washed away in a matter of minutes. They look at you and tell you how thankful they are to be alive and that their loved ones were ok. We heard numerous times about how possessions can be replaced but your loved ones and memories are whats important. We all looked at our lives and realized how lucky we really are. We have a house to come home to, we have food on our tables, we have cloths on our backs, all of the things we sometimes take for granted are the things you don’t miss until they are no longer there. We would like to thank everyone who made this trip possible. If you would like to check out the video of the trip check it out on YouTube with the heading “Dearborn Firefighters Hurricane Sandy Relief Effort.” We first like to thank our wives and families who supported us the entire time and really are the ones who allow us to help others. We would like to thank the Mayor and the city for their blessing as well as our Fire Chief who gave us his full support. The biggest thank you goes out to all of you in the community who answered the call for help. We were so amazed and humbled by the outpouring of support we were shown by you. You made a huge difference in many peoples lives by the donations you made. Without any of you none of this would be possible and we thank you. Whenever we need you, you are always there for us and that means more to us then you will ever know. We are proud to serve you and protect such an amazing community, thank you Dearborn.
- THE DEARBORN FIREFIGHTERS