Honoring their courage
By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
The plaque shares space with other awards and could easily be missed. The department's softball trophies are larger and more prominently displayed.
But the plaque is the only memorial that remembers Tampa firefighters who died in the line of duty.
City officials have known for years that they needed to do more to honor their heroes. But just as they began work on creating a proper memorial last year, the World Trade Center was attacked, and the public's feelings about firefighters changed forever.
An already delicate task became considerably more emotional.
Now a committee of city officials, firefighters and artists is trying to answer a number of difficult questions: Where should a memorial go? Should it be abstract or realistic? Who should decide which artist gets the job -- the committee, the public or the firefighters?
"A memorial is a community thing," said Assistant Fire Marshal Todd Spear. "It's not just our memorial; it will be as much for you as for me. It needs to speak to everyone."
The idea for a memorial began six years ago when firefighters began organizing a museum on Zack Street across from Fire Station One. They wanted to capture the department's history before more of it slipped away.
The city already has lost the full names of some of the 15 firefighters killed in the line of duty since 1890. They don't know how one of the men died.
That made a memorial imperative, especially after Sept. 11, when more than 340 New York City firefighters gave their lives trying to save others.
"It's a way of acknowledging that there are people in our society that do things for us," architect Martha Sherman said of Tampa's project. "They are doing this for the greater good, and that has value."
The City Council pledged about $50,000 to pay for a memorial, and firefighters hope to raise more. The city put out a call last year for artists, who submitted resumes and examples of their work.
The deadline for submissions was Sept. 9.
Weeks later, still reeling from the images that poured from the terrorist attacks, committee members sat around a table at the Tampa Museum of Art and began considering their choices.
One submission came from sculptor Neil Estern, whose work is included in the national memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
Estern also designed the statue in Greenwich Village of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and a bust of John F. Kennedy on display at a memorial in Brooklyn. He is currently working on a statue of former U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper.
"You have to really think about how you would do it," Estern said in an interview about the Tampa memorial. "So it won't be something that is overly sentimental. So it has more dignity."
Estern's sculptures are vivid, realistic and muscular portraits of historical figures. He doesn't do abstract art.
"The art establishment is all concerned with novelty, with something different, something shocking," he said. "Many figurative artists are out there not to express anything the community can share in. They are concerned about their impact on the art world."
If he were to work on Tampa's firefighter memorial, Estern said, he might sculpt a firefighter whose image represented something larger than one person.
"He is going to be idealized," Estern said. "He is going to be well-built, strong. It isn't going to be a guy with a pot belly, a mustache and an odd appearance in any way."
The committee also saw work from Steven Feren, a sculpture professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Feren doesn't like to depict people in his pieces.
"To me, people are redundant," Feren said. "I don't think you need humans. . . . I think things speak a lot better through metaphor."
In 1993, Feren created a firefighter memorial at a station in Milwaukee that showed four hanging fire coats, boots and helmets. On the four helmets were the names of firefighters who died in the line of duty.
After Sept. 11, hundreds of people came out to see the memorial, laying scores of flowers and candles at its base.
The memorial moved people because it was quiet and understated, Feren said. The hanging jackets evoked the image of firefighters waiting for a call. The empty coats seemed to embody the soul of all firefighters, not just the four who died.
"I don't think we need anything that is high drama," Feren said of memorials. "The old bronze statue of the firefighter saving the child -- it's been done, and I'm not interested in it."
Another artist, Richard Heipp, an art professor at the University of Florida, created a memorial for the State Fire College in Ocala that used photographs of firefighters working at peak moments of excitement.
One shot in the collage shows firefighters spraying water. Another shows part of a person who has just died in a fire.
Heipp also used photographs showing red, white and blue lights. He said he used the emergency lights to create a hidden patriotic message.
"I like my work to be image-based," Heipp said. "So when a viewer sees it, they don't figure it out right away."
At the end of the meeting, the committee wasn't much closer to deciding what concept would work best.
The city plans this week to post designs from six artists on its Web page at www.tampagov.net. People can look at the artists' work and e-mail their responses.
Then the group will start making decisions.
"What makes it work? I don't think there is a magic formula for that," said Sherman, the architect. "This is not an easy thing to do."
-- Times staff writer David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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