SAFETY HARBOR — It was a month after the terrorists brought down the Twin Towers in New York City.
Patrick "Patty'' Arcese, a construction worker, was helping build temporary morgues at ground zero, laboring among the crushed ambulances, body parts and hundreds of shoes strewn everywhere.
It was emotional work for the Far Rockaway, N.Y., native. He had been working at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street and saw the first plane flying low down the street on Sept. 11, 2001. Then he heard a "big thump.''
He went to work at ground zero soon after.
"One day I looked over and saw some Safety Harbor guys standing there," Arcese said. "I said, 'Hey, Safety Harbor?' They said, 'yeah.' I said, 'Would that be Florida?' They said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'My mother lives there.' ''
Later, when he went to find them again, they were gone, lost in the chaos and the horrible smell of burning death.
It took three years for him to meet them again. He had moved to Safety Harbor in 2003 and been diagnosed with cancer, a disease caused, Arcese believes, by toxins he breathed in at ground zero.
While recovering at his mother's mobile home from major surgery, he had a setback and she called 911. As chance would have it, two of the responders were among the five Safety Harbor firefighters he had met in New York.
Today, seven years after the attacks, Arcese, 49, is presenting the five — fire Marshal Richard Brock, firefighters Dave Pacheco Jr. and Michael Pounds, Deputy Chief Mike Eash and Capt. Ray Duke — with a replica of a bronze firefighter statue that serves as a tribute to all the firefighters killed as a result of the attacks on the World Trade Center.
On Sept. 2, just before the Tampa Bay Rays took on the New York Yankees, he presented each one with a plaque in a pregame ceremony.
He also purchased a cobblestone in each firefighter's name that will go into the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum at ground zero.
"Everybody takes them for granted,'' said Arcese. "Who's the true person who's going to pull you out of a burning house? They are. I seen it with my own eyes when I was a kid.''
In the weeks following the attacks, prior to the Safety Harbor rescuers' departure to New York and before anyone had heard of Arcese, strangers where stopping by Station 53 and dropping off donations.
Shortly after, the five firefighters went to New York City "on their own time and dime'' Brock said, to stand in at funerals to "make a decent firefighter funeral for the families.'' Some days they attended three funerals. At night, they worked at ground zero and met Arcese while taking a break near a church.
The men stayed for two weeks. After coming home briefly, Brock went back up for another two weeks to work with the New York City fire marshals.
Although doctors say he's not terminal, Arcese feels sick every day. He sleeps 12 to 14 hours a day. In a few days, he will return to New York for treatment for lymphoma.
"I'm fighting, you understand,'' he said.
Eileen Schulte can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.