As a firefighter working in Manhattan's SoHo, Inwood resident Rich Snyder was one of hundreds of firemen who responded to the attacks at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Snyder searched tirelessly for survivors in the aftermath of the tragedy, sifting through the debris and toxic dust. He lost many dear friends, he says, including seven fellow firefighters from Ladder 20.
After he retired from the FDNY in 2004, Snyder vowed to keep the memories of his friends alive, and he has been involved with a number of charitable organizations ever since, including the 9/11 Foundation, a non-profit group that provides scholarship money to the children of first responders who were killed in the attacks. "I was looking to give back to the community and fire department community," Snyder said. "It gives me the opportunity to honor their memories and give something back to the communities that I worked in."
Now Snyder and others, including a Baldwin pizzeria owner, are hoping to further honor those who were killed on 9/11 - and died in the years afterward - by placing thousands of American flags at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn next month, part of a memorial fund-raiser called the 9/11 Healing Field.
The event will take place from Sept. 7 to 12, with at least 3,000 flags representing those who lost their lives on 9/11, as well as additional flags for servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will benefit several police and fire organizations, including the FDNY Firefighters Burn Center Foundation and the Trauma Response Assistance for Children (TRAC), an organization that assists children and their families who have experienced the trauma of terrorism or natural disasters. The event, which is hosted in part by the National Park Service, will include a reading of victims' names, guest speakers, vocal groups singing patriotic songs and a main ceremony on Sept. 11.
Founded by the Colonial Flag Foundation, a non-profit that assists with the event's planning and organizing, the Healing Field is intended to be a source of healing and funding for worthy causes.
The inaugural event was held in Utah in 2002, on the first anniversary of the attacks, as a memorial to the victims. Since then, there have been more than 160 Healing Fields staged around the country, raising millions of dollars for various charities and community organizations.
And though he was involved with numerous fund-raisers, Snyder said he had been looking for a more tangible way to give back. The Healing Field seemed ideal after a close friend of his, Michael Bellone, an honorary firefighter and EMT from Brooklyn who worked at ground zero with Snyder, suggested the event. "He wanted to do a fund-raiser also, because he's a giving person, so we started thinking about who would benefit," Snyder said. "We decided that we'd donate to organizations that serve children, firemen and police officers."
Bellone, who worked on a Healing Field in Waterloo, N.Y., last year, said that this year is poignant because, for the first time, Healing Field events will be held simultaneously in New York City, Shanksville, Pa., and Washington, D.C. "Each flag will have the name of an individual that perished," said Bellone, the director of operations for TRAC, which is also hosting the event. "They do it to remember and to honor the memory of those that were lost. It originally started to honor those who were killed on 9/11, but we've expanded it to include any military personnel who have been killed."
Bellone said he was just 400 feet away from 7 World Trade Center when it collapsed, and he suffers from pulmonary fibrosis due to his work at ground zero. He added that it is vital to remember not only those who were lost on 9/11, but the hundreds of workers who have died of health complications in recent years.
"My doctor said it doesn't look good, but if I had to do it all over again, I would," said Bellone, who co-wrote a book in 2003 called "Behind the Scenes, Ground Zero." "I made a deal with God: Get me out of here and I'll pay it forward. I lost a lot of friends that day. I don't have much left, so this is what I do now. I try to raise money so these organizations can keep doing good things."
Snyder has enlisted the help of local businesses and non-profit groups, including Baldwin's Amore Mio Pizzeria, whose co-owner, Laura Hetzel, has been assisting with flag sales and marketing. The restaurant's other co-owner, Joe DiTillio, worked at his father's pizzeria on Cortland Street on 9/11, and lost many friends that day. Since it opened in 2005, the local business has been honoring victims by placing memorial artwork on its walls and helping charitable organizations.
"We're mostly trying to get the word out through our customers," said Hetzel, who got involved with the Healing Field after Snyder held a raffle for a custom-made Harley Davidson motorcycle - a tribute to 9/11 victims - in front of her store last year. "We're trying to get people to support it, and the money is going to some worthy charities. A lot of it is about family, for the children and wives of firemen."
Each 3 x 5 flag will be posted on an 8-foot pole and marked with the name of an honoree. Flags cost $35, and the organization is looking for sponsors. Local sponsors also include ArtAid in Baldwin, A & B Towing in Lawrence, and L.C. Audio of Island Park.
"We're looking for people to volunteer and sponsor individual flags, and we're hoping that corporations or companies will contribute as well," Snyder said. The flags will be returned to the buyers after the four-day event, which is even more poignant this year, Snyder and Bellone said, since this year's 9/11 memorial service will not be held at ground zero.
"It gives family members or the public an alternate place to come and pay their respects and to reflect," Snyder said. "It's an incredible, spiritual feeling to walk through the flags. It's such an uplifting experience. You feel a certain sense of well-being and comfort walking among the flags."