Suburbs help heal New York firefighters (Part 3 of a 4-part Sept. 11 anniversary series)
By James Fuller
On Sept. 11, New York lost 343 firefighters and gained a city.
The connection that grew between New York and Chicago in the days and weeks following 9/11 is a rope made of many individual threads.
Chicago area police officers sped to the Big Apple to join the rescue and recovery effort, direct traffic or do whatever was needed to keep New York operating.
Firefighters from Chicago and the suburbs grabbed their helmets and gear and headed east. Some, like Schaumburg’s Lt. Rick Kolomay, dug into the pile of rubble alongside the New Yorkers. Others, like nine from Bartlett, Hanover Park and Streamwood, packed their Class A uniforms and went to as many funerals and memorial services as they could fit into a week of vacation.
Throughout the fall, our citizens collected money, by the penny and by the pound. We gathered emergency supplies and personally drove them out East. We held blood drives, organized memorial services, made Christmas ornaments for children’s trees.
And Joe Cantafio picked up his guitar again.
Cantafio, a Barrington area stock trader, was torn up at the devastation and the loss of life on Sept. 11, chiefly the sacrifice of the 353 firefighters who ran up the World Trade Center stairs instead of fleeing.
He neither wanted nor needed to deal with the financial issues the large charities were having. Instead of throwing money into a boot, this brother-in-law of a firefighter would donate a year of his life and bring the Chicago suburbs along for the ride.
He put the names of all the lost firefighters into a bowl and picked one at random. Chris Mozzillo, one of five from Engine Company 55 who died, came out. Engine 55 would benefit from Cantafio’s efforts.
For nearly a year, that mission has included concerts, singing at festivals and clubs, urging people to give whatever they could to benefit the families of the five Engine 55 men killed at the World Trade Center.
Mixing with local firefighters, suburban community groups and Chicago-area musicians, Cantafio has been on a Forrest Gump-like tour of good faith and helping hands.
“‘Let Freedom Sing’ has been driven by patriotism, kept together through faith and spawned from pure fate,” says Cantafio of his mission.
In the process he’s met President Bush, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago Fire Chief and “Backdraft” movie inspiration Robert Hoff and shook the hand of Cardinal Francis George.
Local talents Ronnie Rice of New Colony Six fame; Jon Brandt, formerly of Cheap Trick; Jay Geppner of the Beatle Brothers and Dick Biondi of Magic 104.3-FM have all stepped to the microphone to inspire donations at various concerts.
But beyond the political bigwigs and rock stars is the infusion of the cause into local homes, garages and firehouses. It’s the contribution of the local man, woman and child that has completed the melding of the Hudson Bay with the Des Plaines River.
April 19, 2002, was officially FDNY Engine 55 Day in Chicago. Engine 55 firefighters were grand marshals at Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, as well as July 4th parades in Bartlett, Barrington, Palatine, Morton Grove, Naperville and Skokie. New York firefighters clamber onto the stage when Cantafio sings at suburban events, joining in loudly and sometimes badly off-key.
The Engine 55 men carry stories back to New York of Schaumburg kids collecting $44 in change in a big athletic sock and how tears still flood the faces of Midwesterners at Cantafio’s shows.
Initially, the New Yorkers couldn’t understand that outpouring of emotion so many miles away from ground zero.
But after thousands of hand shakes and hugs, the message from Chicago and its suburbs is clear. New York and Washington, D.C., alone were not attacked on Sept. 11 – America was, and that’s a bond that bridges any distance.
“I used to hate Chicago,” said Manny Gonzalez, a New York medical technician who does health checks on the firefighters. “But not after this. You guys changed my heart.”
Now, whenever Engine 55 firefighters need to fly to Chicago for a benefit concert, American Airlines’ Caroline Formoso and United Airlines’ Susie Gindo find the seats.
Whenever they need a bed to sleep on, Joe Pinto at Itasca’s Wyndham Hotel makes sure there are rooms, no questions asked.
At all of Cantafio’s performances, The Berghoff’s Joe Gleddus supplies beer to the venue and donates all the money from the bottles sold to the cause.
“Much like everyone else, we were just sitting around stunned, wondering what we could do to help,” Gleddus said. “Then I got a call from a business partner about his friend organizing a fund-raising event. It’s a good cause, and we do what we can in whatever small way we can help.”
Cubs tickets? No problem. An Engine 55 firefighter wants to throw out the first pitch when the White Sox play the Yankees? Done. Dinner for 30? Have a seat.
Wherever Cantafio plays, there are local people who design, print and sell T-shirts to raise money for the widowed families. Others print and pass out flyers.
Cantafio said the night when Engine 55’s Paul Acciarito tossed the first pitch at the White Sox game represented a culmination of all his efforts.
“The crowd erupted when the ‘FDNY Engine Company 55’ logo went up on the screen in center field,” Cantafio recalls. “There were 30,000 fans at that game, and it gave me chills to see Pauly whiz a strike over the plate.
“The Engine Company 55 T-shirts that my friends Roy and Lynda Hervas printed up for us were scattered on the backs of patrons all over the park.”
If Cantafio has a show in New York, Barrington firefighter Ron DeAville packs the guitar and stage equipment in the back of his pick-up truck, drives the nearly 900 miles to New York and sets it up for him at every venue. Northbrook firefighter Tim Olk is right by his side.
“I just wanted to help, no questions asked,” Olk said.
Part of the bond stems from the firefighter culture. Dedication, tradition, loyalty. Those are the facets of the firefighter creed. It’s that same bond that’s helped them heal.
“Those with losses need to talk about it, get it out in the open to heal,” Cantafio said. “When the firemen come here, we all need healing too, so it’s a perfect marriage.
“Someone will politely ask firefighter John Olivero if they can ask him about Sept. 11th. John always says, ‘You can ask me anything you’d like.’ I can remember a time in March when that wasn’t the case for some of the guys at E-55, but they all have seemed to follow John’s lead.”
Chicago-area firefighters who volunteered in New York said the love affair is mutual. Lines of people would vanish whenever they needed a bar stool or a booth at a restaurant. New Yorkers spontaneously cheered them just walking by.
As the anniversary approaches, Cantafio’s tour will wind to a close and the strains of “American Pie,” his theme song, will fade away.
Still, every year for the rest of his life, Cantafio will have at least one meal with the men of Engine 55 and those who helped the cause.
Maybe he’ll even strum up the song he plays every concert as the New York firemen join him on stage: Bye-bye, Miss American Pie. Hello, brotherhood.
“(Firefighter) Tommy Hogan summed it up every night he was on tour with us,” Cantafio said. “He always told the crowds the real twin cities aren’t in Minnesota, they are New York and Chicago!'”