9/11 memorial meant to touch and be touched

Philadelphia News - October 08, 2006

Artist Rob Girandola was chosen to create a sculpture for a Manhattan firehouse, honoring four who died at the trade

Rob Girandola had no idea.

When he received an e-mail last December about a New York fire company needing someone to sculpt a memorial to four fallen firemen, the Yardley resident thought it would be a small project for some firehouse in Brooklyn, or Queens.

Then when he applied - offering to do it for free - and didn't hear anything, he stopped thinking of it altogether.

Finally, in June, fireman Al Sicignano from Engine 6 in Manhattan called and detailed the assignment: a memorial to four men who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The firehouse is on Beekman Street, a few blocks from ground zero, Sicignano told him.

Realizing the magnitude of the project, "I almost fell over," Girandola recalled.

He started working on the clay sculpture, a bas-relief, during the July Fourth weekend, and finished it last month. He then brought it to Stewart Sculpture Casting in Lambertville, N.J., where it was being cast in bronze.

The sculpture will be delivered to Engine 6 next Sunday as part of a rededication of the firehouse, which was damaged by debris and toxins from the 9/11 attacks.

George Kaiser, a volunteer firefighter from Collingdale, Delaware County, will transport the sculpture on a fire engine that he owns. Girandola will follow with his wife and three children as part of a caravan.

The truck is scheduled to stop first at ground zero for a moment of silence.

Girandola set out to have the sculpture - 48 inches wide, 54 inches high, and 21/2 inches deep at its base - ready for delivery on Sept. 11. But the victims' families, he said, thought it would be too painful to have the ceremony that day.

The families provided photos so Girandola could study the firefighters' faces and physiques. He has learned a lot about the four, and speaks as if he knew them - Paul Beyer is "Paulie," for instance, and Thomas Holohan is "Tommy."

When he talks about the men and the sculpture, his eyes sometimes tear up and he stops himself to let his emotions pass.

"We couldn't have picked a better guy," said Sicignano, adding that Girandola was chosen from about 36 applicants. "Everyone involved with the project, even the [victims'] families themselves, think he's great."

Girandola mentioned in his application letter that two of his four brothers had been in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, and had witnessed the attacks or the aftermath. Sicignano said that was a factor in selecting Girandola.

The sculpture depicts an actual 9/11 scene - Lt. Thomas O'Hagan, William Johnston, Holohan and Beyer climbing a stairwell of the north tower. Laid atop the banister, to the right of the men, is the firehouse's riding board, which shows the day's assignments: O'Hagan as the officer, Beyer on nozzle, Holohan as controller, Johnston on the door.

The board ends with the "Details" section, used to mention firefighters from other companies who were helping out. No details were listed on Sept. 11, so Girandola improvised there by writing 343, the number of firefighters who died at the Trade Center that day.

The lower left corner bears the saying We Draw Strength From Each Other. Above it, Girandola created a doorway, and in it placed the firehouse logo, a Tammany tiger. The doorway and the riding board are vertical rectangles - a representation of the twin towers, Girandola said.

Three of the firemen are wearing helmets. Beyer had lost his earlier that morning, and at the request of Beyer's widow, Girandola placed it below the riding board. O'Hagan is leading the climb. A hand that extends from the upper right corner of the sculpture touches his left middle finger.

"The way the piece moves up to the top and you have the lieutenant reaching out, the firefighters interpret this like rescuing a civilian," Girandola said. "But they also see a double meaning possibly, an angel taking them away."

Beyer's left hand is also prominent, jutting out, waiting to grasp a live hand. The palm includes a fingerprint from Beyer's 16-year-old son.

"The reason that we had this here was so that the piece could be interactive," Girandola said. "The way it's going to hang in the firehouse, when they walk by it, if they want to, they could put their hand in his.

"It's kind of like a tactile way - you know how you have closure if someone passes away [and] you get to spend some time with them again. They didn't really..." he added, his eyes welling up.

Girandola, 42, works as director of quality assurance for Estee Lauder in Bristol, and sculpts - and paints - on the side. He raised money to cover the approximate $15,000 needed for the bronze casting. Estee Lauder, which coincidentally had employed Johnston's mother at the time of the attacks, "put up a significant amount of money," he said.

Next Sunday, he plans to be at the Lambertville foundry before 6 a.m., to ensure the procession gets to ground zero by 10:28, the time the north tower collapsed.

What will that day be like for him? He has some idea.

"It's going to be very difficult," Girandola said. "I mean, I have trouble talking about it right now. And one of the reasons I have trouble talking about it is because what happens is you start to think about Paulie's wife, and how she thinks. His wife. And the children.

"And then you combine that with..." he said, stopping to compose himself. "So many people have told me so many stories. So many people are so moved by it. You think about all that emotion, and for me personally, it's hard to just not be really moved by it."

A number shared, and a lifetime friendship forged

Collingdale firefighter George Kaiser Jr. says he has visited Engine 6 in New York 10 times. The 11th trip will be next Sunday when he and about two dozen colleagues attend a rededication of the lower Manhattan firehouse.

And, speaking of numbers, none of that might have happened had a police officer not suggested that Collingdale's Station 06 drop by New York's Engine 6 after a trip to ground zero.

Engine 6, on Beekman Street about six blocks from the World Trade Center, lost four firefighters and suffered severe damage on Sept. 11, 2001. Next Sunday, it will have a rededication ceremony, which will feature the unveiling of a bronze memorial sculpted by Rob Girandola of Yardley.

The sculpture, which portrays the four men on a stairwell in the north tower, will travel to New York on the tailboard of a fire engine that Kaiser bought from the Collingdale department three years ago.

For Kaiser and the Collingdale firehouse, the day will extend a relationship with Engine 6 that began four months after 9/11.

Here is how the two companies connected:

Delaware County assigns numerals to its fire departments, and Collingdale Fire Co. No. 1 is Station 06. In January 2002, Kaiser was a veteran volunteer at the firehouse, and April Lefferts was a young newcomer, as well as a student at Temple University's Tyler School of Art.

She had made a pencil drawing of three firefighters carrying a hose in front of the American flag, and decided to give it to a New York firehouse that had suffered a great loss on 9/11. She picked Ladder 5 at Engine 24, because eight of the unit's 25 members had died that day.

Lefferts asked Kaiser to go with her and her family, and while they were there, they went to ground zero. They then met a police officer who, spotting their fire-company shirts, allowed them on a viewing platform that was designated for firefighters and their families.

"He saw us with our shirts that said 'Station 06,' and he said, 'You guys ought to go down and visit Engine 6; they're right on the other side of Broadway...' " Kaiser recalled.

"So we went in there, and Al Sicignano, who was on duty that day, said, 'Hey, how you guys doing?' And he saw the 6th, and he said, 'You guys are the 6th?' 'Yeah.' 'Well, come on in, brothers.' That's the whole mentality up there, the FDNY - like the whole brotherhood of firefighters."

In addition to his visits to the station, Kaiser attended the May 2002 funeral of one of the Sept. 11 victims, Paul Beyer, whose remains were identified the previous month.

Firefighters from Engine 6 have come to Collingdale twice, for a July 4 parade in 2002 and the 100th anniversary of Station 06 this last June. Collingdale firemen also took the New Yorkers and their families to Hershey Park in '02.

Kaiser keeps a binder of photos of Engine 6, including before-and-after shots of its truck that was destroyed on 9/11, and pictures from Beyer's funeral.

"The Collingdale Fire Company did a lot, sticking by us. George has been a big part of that," Sicignano said, adding that his station also developed similar relationships with firehouses in Boston, Maine and New Jersey after 9/11.

Kaiser credits Lefferts for being the "catalyst" for the friendship between Engine 6 and Station 06, but he said the companies bonded through their respect for the four 9/11 victims.

After Station 06 approved his purchase of its 1970 fire truck in April 2003, Kaiser had the names of the four - Lt. Thomas O'Hagan, Beyer, Thomas Holohan and William Johnston - stenciled in gold-leaf lettering on a storage-compartment door on the driver's side.

Kaiser, 56, a member of the fire department since 1973, uses the truck for parades and for training, and stores it in the firehouse.

Next Sunday, accompanied by two fellow Collingdale firefighters, he plans to drive the engine to Lambertville, N.J., pick up the sculpture from Stewart Sculpture Casting, load it on the truck, and head toward New York. Girandola will follow with his family.

Sicignano plans to wait in an Engine 6 truck near the Holland Tunnel and lead the way to ground zero, and then Engine 6.

Girandola wasn't aware of Kaiser's relationship with Engine 6. In fact, he had never heard of Kaiser. But when Girandola was looking for a special way to bring the sculpture to Manhattan, Sicignano suggested Kaiser.

"Rob called me up and said you think you would be willing to do that," Kaiser said. "Fffhh, are you kidding me?

"Yes," Kaiser told him. "I'd come back from the dead."