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Heroes' day in the sun

Firefighters shed New York gloom for warm Gasparilla welcome

By LANE DeGREGORY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 3, 2002


TAMPA -- On the way to Gasparilla, a blue Nissan pulled up beside the yellow school bus. "Hey, are you guys real New York firefighters?"' called a 20-something man, leaning out of the passenger window.

TAMPA -- On the way to Gasparilla, a blue Nissan pulled up beside the yellow school bus. "Hey, are you guys real New York firefighters?"' called a 20-something man, leaning out of the passenger window.

"Sure," answered the bus driver, who had taped a handwritten sign in the window.

"Well, welcome to Tampa!" the man shouted. "We're all glad you made it. You guys are our heroes!"

He tossed a dozen strands of blue beads to the bus driver. She passed them back in the bus. The firefighters looked at one another, surprised.

They were ready for the long walk, the rowdy pirates, the cannon shots. They had been told about the beads and the beer. They had even been warned about the bargaining and bribes and bare breasts.

But nothing could have prepared them for the reception they were about to receive.

They came to Tampa Thursday: 30 firefighters from Engine 16, Ladder 7; plus 27 wives and 68 children. Their station house is a half-mile from ground zero. Their company lost nine men in the World Trade Center towers. Seven of them have not been found.

For the past five months, all the firefighters have been working overtime, digging through the rubble, trying to take care of their friends' widows and children. They haven't had much time for their own families. Most hadn't left New York since September.

They haven't had a heroes' parade back home. New York hasn't really been ready, yet, to host a celebration. So here in Tampa, for the first time, the firefighters got to feel the public's appreciation in person.

"We thought they could all use a break, a little Florida sunshine, some time with their wives and kids," said Hillsborough County firefighter Brian Muldowney, 32. Muldowney has a wallet-sized photo of his older brother, Richie, pinned to his red uniform shirt. Richie was a member of the Engine 16 company, and is one of the men still missing.

Last fall, Muldowney spent eight weeks at ground zero, searching for his brother. When he came back to Tampa, he told the men at his station he wanted to bring the New York firefighters to Florida, to lead the Gasparilla parade. The firefighters started making calls. The community started contributing.

Thursday, the New York firefighters and their families went to the Florida Aquarium and Gameworks. On Friday, they went to Busch Gardens. Saturday morning, the families watched the parade from the mayor's stand.

The firefighters were stationed on the third float, behind the Tampa Bay firefighters' Krewe Saint Florian, in front of the Lido High marching band.

"This is the first time since September that we've worn these uniforms for something fun," said New York firefighter Jerry Morrone, who escaped from the second World Trade Center tower as it started to fall. "Lately, the only times we've worn them is to funeral services and memorial services."

The Class A dress uniforms include navy pants, a light blue shirt and a navy jacket. A black patch is sewn onto the left sleeve. It has white stitching across the bottom depicting the New York skyline. The old skyline. On the patch, the Twin Towers still stand.

"That's been our symbol for 15 years," Morrone said. "I don't know when -- or if -- they're going to change it."

Three hours before the parade stepped off, the firefighters had one or two strands of beads around their necks. Already, 200 people were crowded around their float. Kids who wanted their autographs. Men who wanted to shake their hands. Women who wanted beads or tie tacks or other souvenirs. They traded red satin garter belts, Coors Light cans, hugs and kisses for the bright beads with black discs that said simply "FDNY."

"All right, what do I have to do for those beads? My only mission today was to get your beads," said a blond-haired woman with a green bandana around her head. Morrone traded her for a smiley face strand. "What do I have to do to get more?" she asked.

A redhead in a low-cut gypsy dress put a red Z tattoo on firefighter Steve Marsar's left cheek. Then she wanted him to put one on her. "Where?" he asked. She laughed, looked down at her cleavage, then back up at him.

"I can tell you're not from Tampa," she said.

By the time their float started moving, all the firefighters' necks were heavy with beads. Beads with lobsters and flamingos and mugs of foamy beer. Beads with chili peppers and clown faces and jumping dolphins. Crowds lining the route started chanting and waving and holding out cupped hands.

"We love New York! We love you guys!"

"USA! USA! USA!"

"You guys do a great job! Keep up the good work!"

"I prayed for you all!"

"We're so proud of you!"

A middle-age mom herded her daughter toward the barricade. "There they are, Brittany! Those are the men that were there, Honey! Wave to the heroes!"

All through the crowd, folks were wearing navy FDNY hats and red plastic firefighters' hats. Waving American flags of all sizes. Wanting to have their pictures taken with the firefighters, running up to them with video recorders and disposable cameras. One woman leaned over a barricade and handed Marsar a Ziploc bag. Inside was a thank you note and a blue crocheted pillow. Across the front, she had stitched "God Bless America."

They brought signs for the firefighters, too, hand-lettered and computer-printed, on posterboard and pizza box tops and the lids of Styrofoam coolers. Mounted on yard sticks and broom handles:

"Thank you, FDNY!"

"We love our firemen! New York # 1!"

"Tampa LOVES NYFD!"

Joanna Ellis of Tampa held a white sign, penned in red and blue marker, "NYFD! Welcome to Tampa!" Four stick figures waved across the bottom of the sign. Her son Ryan, who is 5, drew the people to represent his family. The sign was his idea.

"Ever since 9/11, he's been talking about the firemen who died when that big building fell down. It really upset him," Ellis said. "So when I told him lots of the New York firemen were still alive, and they were coming to our parade, he had to see them. He wanted to make them a sign, so they would see him too."

New York fireman Joel Gurrieri saw Ryan and the sign. He gave Ellis four strands of beads. He gave Ryan a high-five.

"This is all so unbelievable. Really overwhelming," Gurrieri said. "We had no idea folks down here would be so supportive."

Many of the firefighters are still suffering from September. Besides the emotional scars, Salvatore Torcivia lost half his lung capacity after working two weeks at ground zero. The longer you work there, he said, the worse it gets.

And there is still so much to be done.

"That's why it's nice to get away. Even only for a few days," he said.

Firefighter Paul Miller agreed. Halfway through the parade, his face hurt from smiling so much. "This is the most fun I've ever had without my wife," he said.

"Oh, we've had a lot of people bringing food and stuff by the station in New York. A lot of people have come to cook dinner for us there, and stuff," Marsar said. "But we haven't really been away from New York, or out in crowds. Not like this. I didn't really know people cared about us so much, especially not so far away."

As they passed the convention center about 3:45 p.m., the firefighters ran out of beads. They had given out 20,000 strands with the coveted black discs. People kept leaning over the barricades anyway, just to touch the firefighters. Police officers along the route, state troopers, paramedics, seniors from a Methodist church group, toddlers from a Tampa preschool. Firefighter Mike Behette must have slapped 400 hands.

"It's 35 degrees and pouring in New York right now," he said, sweating near the end of the route. "This sure takes us away."

Only half of the company's firefighters got to go to Gasparilla on Saturday. The rest of the station -- mostly the single guys -- will come in two weeks to march in the night parade. Some of the firefighters who were in Saturday's parade were begging to come back, too.

But no matter how much fun they had, or how much they laughed, or how good it felt to get away, none of them could forget their nine friends who weren't there, who were the reason they all were.

"It's all so great. But it's sort of bittersweet, you know?" Behette said. "I mean, it's hard not to think about why we're here.

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