Sep 11, 2009
9/11 and what makes America strong
Fire Truck Becomes a Memorial to the Fallen of Ground Zero
By PETER APPLEBOME
New York Times
Sept 10, 2009
Maybe it was because part of his job at ground zero was to gas up the fire trucks. Maybe it was because his life was being consumed by nine months of practically living at the Pit, sleeping nights on the third pew at St. Paul’s Chapel.
But sometime between the morning he hopped on a fire truck to head toward the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the day his volunteer work ended the next June, Michael Bellone had an idea.
Why not a New York City fire truck bearing the names, ranks and fire companies of all 343 firefighters who died that day? Would that not be the perfect memorial to their sacrifice? The work finally ended, but the idea never went away.
For those who lost family members or friends, that day will never fade from memory. For many of us, it’s already fading. But for the thousands who were there as workers or witnesses, there is almost a conscious decision to be made. How much to hold fast to memory? How much to move on?
For better or worse, Michael Bellone — now 54, down to 13 percent lung capacity, on permanent disability and living upstate near Syracuse with his wife, whom he met at ground zero — has not given an inch to moving on. He figures, if some people have to keep the memories alive, why not let it be him?
Mr. Bellone was a burly nightclub bouncer from Brooklyn with training as an emergency medical technician when he went down to the Pit. Except for some Saturday nights back at the club where he worked, he said he spent virtually all of the next nine months at ground zero.
Afterward, Mr. Bellone and Bobby Barrett, a firefighter with whom he became friends at ground zero, began speaking to schoolchildren about 9/11. Mr. Bellone founded a group, T. R. A. C. (Trauma Response Assistance for Children) Team, to counsel and to educate kids about violence, trauma, natural disasters and terrorism.
And then there was the truck. He spent years looking for one that had been used in New York City, was still functioning and was large enough for 343 names. After years of checking eBay and auction sales, three years ago he found such a truck in Buffalo, a 38-foot-long 1981 Seagrave with a 100-foot ladder that had been used in Utica and was part of Ladder 36 in Manhattan from 1980 to 1989.
He spent three years fixing it up, hired a local company that did Nascar lettering to paint the names and ranks, the companies and firehouse logos, then took the pictures of the fallen off the Internet and added them, too.
“This is not about me; it’s about them,” he said. “My slogan is ‘Remember the men,’ and I worry every day that we’re already forgetting. So you can read the names, but you see them on a truck, with the rank and station assignment and station logo — that makes it real.”
His friend Mr. Barrett, whose company lost 15 people, said he reached the point where he had to step back and decide between the world of constant remembrance and the world of the living. He chose the latter.
“At one of the memorials, Jimmy Gray’s, his 9-year-old daughter said, ‘Daddy, if I knew you weren’t coming home again, I’d have let you tickle me a little harder,’ ” he said. “And I think, these men gave their lives so we can enjoy ours. If we don’t, what did they die for?”
But Mr. Barrett said he respected what Mr. Bellone was doing, that he was doing it all from the heart, that everyone had to find their own balance between then and now.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bellone and another friend, Jay Rodriguez, who had been an ironworker at ground zero, left home in the fire truck at 9 a.m., cars honking approval as they drove down the highway. They reached the George Washington Bridge at 5:30 p.m.
And there it was, gleaming red: “Never Forget September 11, 2001” on both sides of the ladder, names, ranks and photos in perfect array, even a citation for firefighter fathers who lost firefighter sons.
Mr. Bellone drove over the bridge toward Ladder 36, in Inwood. After that, he plans to take the truck to ground zero, see friends, attend memorials. On Sunday, he’ll drive it home and will occasionally bring it to patriotic parades and fire-related ceremonies.
“It’s not about me. It’s not about the truck,” he said. “It’s about the 343 men. I just want people to remember.”