By Alexander Dworkowitz
Last week seven North Carolina firefighters hit the road with only one thing in mind: New York or bust.
On Saturday morning after a whirlwind tour of the city, the North Carolina firefighters arrived at Flushing’s Union Street firehouse to present three separate awards to families of New York City firefighters.
In the eyes of New York’s firefighters, each award was more spectacular than the next.
“It’s such an outpouring of love,” said Thomas DaParma, the Queens trustee of New York’s Uniformed Firefighters Association.
First unveiled were bronze-plate statues of firefighters in action. The figures were to be distributed to the families of all the 343 firefighters killed on Sept. 11.
The men then presented four vans, donated to the Fire Family Transport Foundation, which helps transport families of firefighters in times of crisis
Finally, the Southerners, most of whom are from Raleigh, N.C. handed out a mammoth $373,953 check made out to the Thomas Elasser Fund, which gives money to widows and children of firefighters who die while not in the line of duty. Those families only receive a year of pension payouts, often leaving them financially strapped at the end of that year.
The donation was organized by two firefighters from the Flushing firehouse, which earned the name “The Mighty Mouse House” when a picture of Mickey Mouse was painted on the outside of the firehouse as part of the 1976 bicentennial celebration.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Firefighter Freddy Bischoff went down to visit firefighters in Raleigh, who were interested in supporting their New York brethren.
Bischoff returned to New York and put Firefighter Lou Minutoli in touch with the North Carolina firefighters, who arranged the donation.
Minutoli said the donation was an arrangement among friends.
“This is a close-knit thing,” he said. “This is a family thing.”
The firefighters from North Carolina were not ones to prove Minutoli wrong, joking around with the New Yorkers.
“We’ve been treated like royalty,” said Larry Hughes, deputy director of training and inspections for the North Carolina office of the state fire marshal.
Tim Bradley, North Carolina’s assistant state fire marshal, said the outpouring of support for New York City firefighter’s in North Carolina was tremendous.
“It’s really humbling,” Bradley said with a Southern drawl. “We had firefighters all across the state last fall collecting money on street corners and in shopping malls.”
While the statues go directly to families of the victims of Sept. 11, the remaining gifts also go toward the future needs of Fire Department families.
The Fire Family Transport Association was founded by Firefighter Wally Blum of Ladder 174 in Brooklyn in 1993. Blum saw the need when a fellow firefighter in his company was severely burned, and his family had trouble reaching him in the hospital.
“His wife was in an old Suburban. It broke down. It added to the stress, instead of alleviating it,” said Blum.
Blum said the demand for the transportation has been greatest in the last six months because hundreds of families have needed cars or vans to attend firefighter funerals and visit hospitals.
The four vans donated by the North Carolina firefighters raise the total of number of vans in his association to 10.
Even though disaster brought the firefighters together, the theme of the day was friendship.
“Firemen are firemen everywhere,” said Bradley, looking over to New York City firefighters. “They just talk a lot different.”
Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.