A helmet lost by a New York City firefighter in the aftermath of 9/11 is on its way to its owner after spending almost 15 years in storage in a Wiregrass home. The beat-up, soot-laden FDNY helmet gained the fancy of Chris Solomon’s 5-year-old son, Rustin, when it made its way to Dothan a few months after the World Trade Center collapse.
The helmet was a gift to Rustin from a friend of his grandmother, Cheryl Solomon (Chris Solomon's mother). Her friend worked as a construction manager in New York and was surveying ground zero when he saw the helmet. He picked it up and later sent it to Dothan.
After the initial fascination with the helmet wore off, it wound up in a box in the guest bedroom. It stayed there for several years before Chris Solomon attempted to find the helmet’s owner. He took it to the Headland Fire Department to see if the department could help locate the owner, but there was little progress.
He moved the helmet to a storage area under his carport, where it stayed for several more years. He came across it again this week while rummaging through boxes.
He looked under the cloth lining of the helmet’s interior for the first time. Displayed in prominent white letters was the name “Iammatteo” along with a badge number.
He called State Sen. Harri Anne Smith. He called the office of U.S. Rep. Martha Roby. He called the office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
He called the Manhattan Fire Department, and that’s when things started to move. He spoke to a dispatcher and provided the information he had. The dispatcher promised to pass it along.
Soon thereafter, John Iammatteo, a retired New York firefighter living in Wilmington, North Carolina, received a Facebook message from a friend working at New York firehouse where he had served.
"At first, it sounded a bit fishy," Iammatteo said in a phone interview Thursday with the Dothan Eagle.
Later, Iammatteo received a phone call from a fire marshal that confirmed what he had been told. His helmet wound up in an Alabama home and the family wanted to find its owner.
Solomon and Iammatteo talked by phone Thursday. The helmet will be shipped soon.
“I cried,” Cheryl Solomon said when she learned the helmet’s owner had been located.
Iammatteo doesn't remember when or how he lost his helmet. Losing a piece of equipment is a big deal for a New York firefighter, but Iammatteo said firefighters were in a grace period for lost equipment in the aftermath of 9/11.
"I know I did lose it because I finished with a plastic helmet instead of the leather helmet. So, it lines up with me having lost it some time in that time frame. It was pretty chaotic," he said.
Iammatteo responded to the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in the afternoon hours of 9/11 and was working search and rescue operations later in the day when a third building (7 World Trade Center) collapsed a few minutes after 5 p.m. Iammatteo and a fellow firefighter were close enough to the building they were forced to sprint away from it as it fell.
His Facebook page includes a photo of a younger-looking Iammatteo taken at night in the midst of Ground Zero rubble. He has a breathing mask and is leaning on a shovel. Three others are pictured with him. Several other firefighters and a billow of smoke can be seen in the background.
Cheryl Solomon said she thought about trying to find the helmet’s owner off and on over the years and is excited to finally see it happen.
“The only thing about that helmet that ever crossed my mind was finding the hero that wore it,” she said.
Cheryl Solomon was born in Georgia and spent time in Panama City, Florida, before marrying an Alabama man and moving to Dothan in 1966. She made one trip to New York in the mid-1970s and found it hard to keep up with the city’s frantic pace. However, she grew fond of New York after 9/11. Like most Americans, she remembers the day the towers fell. Solomon slept late that day in preparation for a long day of work at Parisian in Dothan. Her mother called and woke her up.
“Look at the television. We’re being attacked,” she remembers her mother saying.
Chris Solomon had just been hired as part of the City of Headland’s sanitation crew. He was on a route when the truck’s driver stopped cold.
“We went to the radio and started listening. We were just stunned. We probably just stood there an hour listening. It was hard to believe,” he said.
Iammatteo said he welcomed the Solomons' effort to return the helmet.
"It's really, really nice," Iammatteo said. "It's hard to describe. I will know, even better, what it means when I get it back. You grow attached to it."
Iammatteo retired from the New York Fire Department in 2004. He now serves as a worship leader at Port City Community Church in Wilmington, where he plays the drums in the church's worship band.
"It's amazing," he said. "I went from having one of the best jobs in the world to having one of the best jobs in the world again. It's a blessing."