Arundel firefighter devises an off-the-wall fund-raiser

Rock-climbing event Saturday to aid families of fallen N.Y. colleagues

May 17, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Two days kept Jim Murray's wife from becoming a widow.

The New York City firefighter and father of two girls, ages 2 and 4, was 48 hours - two shifts' worth - into his vacation when the Twin Towers came crashing down Sept. 11, killing all seven men on duty from his Greenwich Village squad, No. 18. Murray would have been among them if he hadn't taken time off.

"Every one of them was a close friend of mine," he says. "I was so lucky."

The families of the seven firefighters - including that of Timmy Haskell, who wasn't supposed to be working but volunteered to help - were not. They lost fathers, sons and husbands, many of whom were sources of relied-upon income.

And although nothing can make those families whole again, a Columbia business is doing what it can to help with the easy part: the finances.

Earth Treks' Climbing Center in Columbia will hold a benefit to raise money for the families of Squad 18's fallen firefighters Saturday. For $15, guests will have access to the indoor rock walls (gear rental is included), food and games. A silent auction and raffle - featuring signed Orioles merchandise, real FDNY (Fire Department of New York) helmets, which are worth about $500 each, gift baskets and climbing harnesses - are planned. T-shirts and hats with the FDNY logo will be sold.

A row of firetrucks, most with their ladders raised in respectful salutes to the dead, and bagpipers will greet people outside. Firefighters from Squad 18, including Murray, and fire houses throughout Maryland - Anne Arundel and Howard counties in particular, because many of them train at Earth Treks - will talk with visitors and demonstrate equipment.

"It's amazing how people all across America have stepped forward to help us out," says Murray, who lives in Staten Island.

Murray's wife, Noeleen, is the cousin of Earth Treks' owner, Chris Warner, who lives in Oella. But the fund-raiser is the brainchild of Anne Arundel firefighter Keith Hamilton, Warner's buddy and a former climbing instructor at the gym.

"This is my first time organizing anything larger than a 2- year-old's birthday party," says Hamilton, who like Murray has two young daughters. "But the volunteer turnout has been pretty wonderful."

Hamilton and Murray had corresponded months before September, but they didn't meet until after the tragedy. Warner had told Murray about his firefighter friend, and, months before the tragedy, the pair exchanged squad shirts via mail, a common practice among firefighters.

After terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers, Hamilton, other members from his Jones Station Fire House and members of fire houses throughout the country made trips to New York to attend memorial and funeral services for some of the 343 firefighters killed. On one trip, a chance meeting brought Hamilton and Murray, both 34, together.

"A group of guys came up to Manhattan from his firehouse," Murray says. "They stopped by and said where they were from. I said, `Wait a minute' and showed them my T-shirt."

Murray was wearing Hamilton's firehouse shirt beneath his uniform.

From then on, Hamilton and Murray kept in touch. On a visit to Squad 18 six months to the day after the attacks, Hamilton rode with the firefighters. During the shift change, he noticed guys coming in announcing they'd raised $100 or $180 in T-shirt sales for their Squad 18 Family Fund.

"I was like, `What's going on here?'" Hamilton says. "Everyone's been donating to 9-11 funds and millions of dollars have been raised, but it hasn't yet trickled down to the average New York City firefighter family. They have to raise their own money. I was touched by that and all that was going on there, and thought, `There has to be something we can do in Maryland.'"

He got the idea to ask Warner for the rock gym.

"I was all for it," says Warner, 37. "We're all part of the same big community, and it's always our job to chip in and help out in any way we can."

All money raised during the event will benefit the Squad 18 Family Fund.

"The seven men we lost left behind seven children," says Long Island resident Chris Calamia, the Squad 18 firefighter in charge of the fund. "We try to ... do stuff for the kids and be there where their dads would have been - showing up for a ball game or a dance recital or whatever they need - but the families have expenses, too. The more we can raise, the more we can give."

The Earth Treks' benefit at 7125-C Columbia Gateway Drive will begin at 7 p.m.; the raffle and silent auction will start at 10 p.m. Admission is $15 and includes climbing-gear rental; children age 6 and younger will be admitted free. Information: 410-872-0060 or www.earthtreksclimbing.com/sq18/#18. Information about Squad 18: www.squad18.com. Donations may be sent to Squad 18 Fund, 132 W. 10th St., New York, N.Y. 10014.

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