Sifting through many heartfelt sentiments

Local volunteers sort N.Y. firefighters' mail

January 13, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the students at Dance Dimensions in Kettering, Ohio, sent the firefighters of New York City their ballet shoes, battered and pink, stuffed with sympathetic words and tied with strips of golden organza ribbon.

The children of Gunma, Japan, sent a "peace parcel" filled with 14,368 paper cranes. And a crew team at Washington State University sent a shoebox filled with 327 sympathy cards in sealed envelopes addressed to no one at all.

Yesterday, in a hushed meeting room on the second floor of an Emmitsburg fire house, a dozen volunteers sifted through the contents of more than 100,000 letters, boxes and poster tubes addressed to the members and families of Fire Department City of New York, reading heartfelt words intended for people hundreds of miles away.

Theirs was the task of opening and organizing, cataloguing and reading some of the correspondence and gifts that have overwhelmed the New York fire companies since Sept. 11.

Inundated with notes, cards, posters, teddy bears, dollar bills, checks, friendship bracelets and quilts, the New York State fire administrator asked the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Emmitsburg to act as a satellite collection point and help process the mail.

The Maryland volunteers - one group in Emmitsburg and a second group of about 20 people in Bowie - were charged with processing 75 cardboard boxes of mail, dividing it into piles based on whom the letters were addressed to and chronicling the contents so that thank-you notes could be sent.

"This is tremendous," said Sherry Soper, a member of the Ladies Auxiliary of Independent Hose Company No. 1 in Frederick, as she surveyed a packet of letters from children in Louisville, Ky. "It just shows you what a national family we've become."

Faced with what the United States Fire Administration is calling "the worst single-incident loss of firefighter lives in history," many from the United States and around the world felt compelled to express their feelings of gratitude and sorrow to the New York City firefighters.

"There were so many people who wanted to do something," explained Ronald J. Siarnicki, the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. "They felt they couldn't go and dig in the rubble, so they expressed it in writing."

Volunteers at the Vigilant Hose Company in Emmitsburg labored mostly in silence yesterday, occasionally chuckling at the children's misspellings, their salutations of "Dear Mr. Firefighter Dude" and "Dear FBI, How's it going?" and their hand-drawn posters proclaiming "President Bush Rocks!"

"These children - I think their hearts are in the right place," said Peggy Webb, a member of the Hyattstown Volunteer Fire Department and past president of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Maryland State Firemen's Association. "They're expressing what they can."

Checks and cash gifts were set aside to be sent to the proper charities. Mail addressed for general delivery will likely be divided among the firehouses in New York. Siarnicki said he will learn from the New York State fire administrator later this month what to do with the boxes of teddy bears, toys and posters.

Parts of some letters were read aloud. Poignant artwork - such as a poster decorated with children's handprints that proclaimed "God Bless the Firefighters' Children" - was held up for view.

"I can't help but think some poor firefighter is going to sit there and cry when he reads this," Mary Jane Benstein of Westminster said as she admired the poster.

It was never long before the room grew quiet again as the volunteers became lost in the words and images on the pages before them.

"I'd just like you to know that someone halfway across the U.S. is feeling an emptiness and a void that the loss of a great man has left," one woman wrote to the family of Tom Foley, a firefighter from Bronx Station House No. 3. who was killed Sept. 11.

Another person wrote simply: "We have not nor will we forget."

If the writers had lived closer to New York, perhaps they would have delivered their messages in person or tacked them up on city walls and fences for all to see. This has become the way for many people affected by large-scale tragedies, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, to memorialize the dead.

"It's a new American tradition," said Jan C. Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, where in 1982 someone placed a Purple Heart in the concrete being poured at the wall and started a custom of leaving personal remembrances at public memorials. Since then, more than 60,000 items, including a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, have been left at the wall.

Robert Jacobs, a member of Citizens Truck Company of Frederick who was opening mail in Emmitsburg yesterday, was moved by his visit to one such memorial when he traveled to a New York City firehouse on Eighth Avenue in November. He was certain that the sentiments in the letters and the pictures he saw yesterday would accompany him home.

"I don't think I'll ever forget this," he said.

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