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Bluegrass For The Bravest
New York City's poorest firehouse.


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Deroy Murdock

Lt. Kevin Calhoun reckons that he cheated death by about two minutes.

He remembers racing across Brooklyn toward Manhattan at about 70 miles-per-hour along Bedford Avenue. As Calhoun and his colleagues crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, they saw the second of the World Trade Center’s towers crumble before their eyes.

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”Two minutes sooner, and we would have been dead,” Calhoun says of himself and his associates from FDNY Engine Company 235 in Brooklyn. Calhoun and his men proceeded to the fresh pile of rubble and tried to hook up their hoses to begin extinguishing a fire that ultimately burned for nearly three months. With water mains smashed beneath the wreckage, street hydrants, and building standpipes ran dry. They had no water pressure until FDNY fireboats tapped into the Hudson River late on the afternoon of Sept. 11.

Calhoun worked at Ground Zero for 14 consecutive days. “I saw nothing recognizable for two weeks,” he says. He finally pulled a stapler from the gray dust, the first identifiable artifact he encountered in a fortnight.

While such wretched memories still haunt Calhoun, he’s lucky. Six of his 28 colleagues from Engine 235 were killed when WTC Tower Two took the world by surprise and suddenly, inexplicably imploded.

While 66 other FDNY units lost members on 9/11, Calhoun’s has another interesting distinction. Engine 235 just may be New York City’s poorest firehouse.

While companies such as Ladder 3 — which lost 12 of the 27 men who lived around the corner from my East Village apartment — have enjoyed the generosity of their prosperous neighbors, Engine 235 is located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. “The Eye of Bed-Stuy,” as the firehouse calls itself, received hugs and kisses from grieving members of its community after the terrorist attack. However, few in this low-income area could offer the survivors very much money.

“In the first three weeks after the attack, we got a total of $12,” Calhoun says. “People dropped by to see us, but they don’t have a lot of resources.”

Such funds surely would help the families of those who were murdered on Sept. 11. The fallen have been dubbed “The Monroe Six” after the street on which their firehouse stands. Local news reports have described them not just as heroes but as amiable family men with widely varied interests.

*Lt. Steven Bates, 42, enjoyed golf and competed in marathons and triathlons. He loved to cook for his pals at the firehouse. Sauerbraten was his specialty. He also shared a home with his girlfriend of 10 years, Joan Puwalski. His “babies,” as he called them, were Norton, an eight-year-old mutt, and Samantha, an eight-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever.

*Firefighter Nick Chiofalo, 39, moonlighted as a fire chief in Selden, Long Island. He also worked as a pyrotechnics engineer with Fireworks by Grucci, the Long Island company that sets bombs bursting in air over New York City every Fourth of July. Grucci hired Chiofalo after he sent a condolence letter when a 1985 explosion in its plant killed 16 people. His widow, Joan, is rearing their 13-year-old son, Nicholas Jr.

*Battalion Chief Dennis Cross, 60, was nicknamed “Captain Fearless.” This Vietnam veteran spent 37 years on the FDNY and, according to his wife of 37 years, JoAnn, he had no intention of retiring. He skied, ran, biked, and lifted weights to stay fit despite his advancing years. His hope, she said, was to spend 50 years with the FDNY. He also avoided further promotions which likely would mean more time behind a desk and less time extinguishing fires. His favorite saying was “Take care of men, and men will take care of you.” Some 3,000 people attended the funeral of Cross, the son of an FDNY member who died of a heart attack while fighting a fire when Dennis was 13. Battalion Chief Cross leaves behind his widow, daughters Lisa Wylie, 34, Laura Sheppard, 32, Denise, 28 and a son, Brian, a 29-year-old New York City fireman.

*Firefighter Francis Esposito, 32, hunted, fished, and enjoyed riding around in boats and on motorcycles. He often entertained his four nieces and five nephews. He is survived by his wife, Dawn.

*Firefighter Lee Fehling, 28, played piano, accordion, saxophone, and the clarinet. He also performed in the Wantagh American Legion Bagpipe Band. He often spent lunch breaks practicing on his chanter, a flute-like instrument that helped him polish his bagpipe chops. His widow, Danielle, is bringing up their kids: Kaitlin, 4, Morgan Lee, 1, and Megan Lee who was born last October 18, about a week after her father’s funeral.

*Firefighter Larry Veling, 44, often brought his colleagues cookies and always wore hats, switching from his heavy helmet to lighter baseball caps. He co-owned a deli and, shortly before he was killed, began a second job cleaning and maintaining Board of Education buildings to finance a new home. Veling leaves behind his wife, Diane, and three children: Ryan, 8, Cynthia, 6, and Kevin, 3.

That bright, September morning, firefighter Phil Scarfi drove his five colleagues to Tower Two and remained at West and Vesey Streets connecting hoses to the rig. That saved his life. All five of his mates were killed. (Battalion Chief Cross arrived separately.) Scarfi watched his friends approach the blazing building and has not seen them since.

As he told Newsday’s Rocco Parascandola: “What gives me the strength to get by is every one of those guys knew they were walking into hell, and they never looked back.”

On a sunny President’s Day afternoon, Battalion Chief Eddie Travers, another survivor, sits in the firehouse kitchen at a large, round table covered with a green, plastic tablecloth. “Would you like some shrimp?” he asks, pointing to a shiny, stainless steel bowl filled with ice and crustaceans. Above him, a sign on the wall shows the Statue of Liberty beside the words: “FDNY — Still the greatest job on Earth.”

Travers discusses Engine 235′s fundraising efforts, to date. His colleagues “have been selling T-shirts at firemen’s conventions,” Travers says. The kindness of strangers helps, too. Sometimes folks just show up bearing gifts.

“We don’t know they’re coming. They just come,” Travers says. He recalls that on February 16, “people drove here from Ohio. A group of teachers.” They delivered a check for $1,000 and a care package with decorative pins made by grade-school students along with small bags of popcorn bearing stickers that say, “My heart pops for you.”

Mell Bailey, who co-owns a Salt Lake City Olympic memento shop, produced a lapel pin with an American flag draping the Twin Towers. After speaking with Salt Lake resident Raymond DePrizio, whose brother once worked at Engine 235, she sent the firehouse $8,500 in proceeds from the pins.

Unlike other stations whose affluent neighbors have hosted numerous events for them, Engine 235 has had precisely one benefit staged on its behalf. Several of President Bush’s supporters organized a group viewing of his January 28 State of the Union speech at Midtown Manhattan’s Turtle Bay Lounge.

“I spoke with some Bush campaign volunteers who wanted to get together to watch the State of the Union address,” former Bush/Cheney 2000 staffer Thayer Patterson says. “We decided it would be good to do something for the FDNY at the same time. I spoke to my fire station, and they put me in touch with the impecunious E-235 in Bed-Stuy.” The $20 admissions as well as sales of FDNY T-shirts generated about $1,950 for the surviving families.

Donations to the Monroe Six Memorial Fund, coins from local children’s piggy banks, sales of FDNY-emblazoned items and specific checks earmarked directly to specific firemen’s families have yielded around $50,000, WNBC-TV’s Tim Minton reported on January 17. Compare that sum to the receipts for Hazmat 1/Squad 288 in Maspeth, Queens which lost 19 firefighters at the WTC. That company subsequently has raised $700,000. Meanwhile, Engine 22/Ladder 13 scored an amazing $3.8 million from its wealthy neighbors on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This company voted to give $2 million of that total to a fund for survivors of all 343 FDNY members who made the ultimate sacrifice on Sept. 11.

To help address this disparity, my friends David Gray and Charlie Wright and I are mounting a musical benefit for Engine 235. “Bluegrass for Our Bravest” will bring Buddy Merriam & Back Roads to No Moore’s Blues Bar in Tribeca for a March 14 fundraiser. Admissions, ($20 in advance and $25 at the door), raffle tickets and a silent auction will add even more financial resources to the firehouse’s relief fund.

As Gray and I visit Engine 235 on President’s Day, seven firemen and a firewoman speak casually and joke with each other inside a rugged, beige brick firehouse built in 1895. Its Dutch-style architecture features limestone cornices with the busts of two firemen flanking the building. Inside, Apolinair LaGrandier II lifts his sweatshirt over his head to reveal the outlines of a giant tattoo he is having etched between his shoulder blades. It is based on a memorial mural painted on the side of the firehouse by area artist Anthony Ewing and sponsored by a self-described neighborhood bounty hunter who goes by the name of Jimmy.

LaGrandier’s colleagues recoil in mock horror, begging him to put his shirt over his hairy back.

Soon, we’re all reminded that the FDNY’s bravery was not just an unforgettable element of September 11 but — even now — an absolute given in their everyday lives.

The chuckles and ribbing come to a swift halt as a bell rings lightly in the background. Nearby, a department radio squawks the location of a brand-new emergency. Ever so faintly, what sounds like a telegraph’s dots and dashes urgently fills the air.

Engine Company 235′s firefighters spring into action. They leap into the boots and pants that always stand at the ready around their fire truck. Within 30 seconds, they have revved up, mounted their wagon and peeled out of the firehouse with sirens blaring and their light display flashing red and white. With determination — not fear — etched across their faces, they turn left on Monroe Street and race west towards unseen danger.

For more on E-235, to buy tickets to the Bluegrass for Our Bravest musical tribute or donate to the Monroe Six Memorial Fund, click here.



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