HUDSON — While his students decorated a set of 13 fire hydrants, Eric Johnson watched.
They used paper and glue to commemorate Sept. 11, 2001, and paint and gold leaf to express their feelings about it.
"One said it gave her a chance to give a voice to the voiceless," he said. "That's deep for a 14-year-old."
It's also part of the point of the project, he said. The hydrants honor the emergency responders who lost their lives on 9/11. The set, an exhibit called Three Hours, Two Towers, A Lifetime to Remember, is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa through Saturday.
"Most of the artists would have been 5" when the terrorist attacks happened, Johnson said. "But they can tell you where they were on 9/11. It was a benchmark moment in their lives."
• • •
Johnson is department head for social studies at Fivay High School. He is also a husband and father and retired from the Marine Corps. He got the idea to have students decorate 9/11 fire hydrants from Emma, his 9-year-old daughter.
She is a student at Dayspring Academy, where during P.E. class, she noticed old fire hydrants on the Pasco County Utilities' property that borders the schoolyard.
They call them "retired fire hydrants," Johnson said. "Too old and beat up to be used."
Usually, the county scraps them. Johnson persuaded the county to donate this set to the schools. The students used a $300 grant from the Pasco Education Foundation for supplies. Students at Fivay High School decorated most of the hydrants. Other artists included students from Dayspring Academy, Fivay art teacher Kevin Naples and local artist Doug Norris.
"We did a little welding, acid dipping, powder coating," Johnson said. "Made them look like fire hydrants again."
Then he discussed 9/11 with the students.
"Some had no family in New York, but they felt as though they had been attacked," he said. "They could empathize."
Johnson's 11-year-old daughter, Bella, who loves MOSI, asked him if the Tampa museum could display the fire hydrants after the students finished them. So Johnson called MOSI and met with the museum's vice president of exhibits to ask. The vice president said yes.
Some students decorated. Others filmed the process for a documentary about the project. Tirelessly, Johnson said, they worked, even when they shouldn't have been at school.
"Most of the art students gave up some of their Christmas break," he said.
Art teacher Naples, who painted one of the hydrants, supervised.
Their "work ethic is unbelievable," he said. "You know how it is. Kids love winter break."
But when offered a chance to express themselves in art, they take it.
• • •
On Sept. 11, 2001, Fivay sophomore Benjamin Walzak was 7 years old. When hijacked airplanes hit the Twin Towers, "I was doing the pledge of allegiance in second grade," he said. "I was a little kid, you know? Uninformed, you don't really know what to think."
Benjamin, 17, whose fire hydrant is covered with clippings of news stories and photos from 9/11, has learned a lot about the attack in the years since.
"It's so tragic," he said. "It's like a horror film, but real."
That's what he expresses with the artwork.
"My fire hydrant is not colorful. It's not bright," he said. "It's how it (9/11) was. A very dark day of not only our country, but the world."
On 9/11, the artists in elementary school at Dayspring were babies. But they are impacted by what they've learned.
"Hopefully, nothing like that happens again," said fifth-grader Jake Greenier, 10. "I hate when very bad things happen to our country."
Emily Castro, also a fifth- grader, agreed.
"It's not fair that all those people died," said Emily, 11. "Who knows how many families it affected?"
The students hope the art exhibit's message reaches them and beyond.
"Thank a fireman or a policeman," said fifth-grader Rachel Lucas, 10.
Honor them, Johnson said.
"It's about the firefighters and police officers who still serve today," he said. And the ones who died on 9/11.
Think of the firefighters, Johnson said.
"Their boots are melting. They're breathing in toxic fumes," he said. "They know they're giving their lives."
For that, Jake added, "I just want to show some gratitude."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (727) 869-6235 or email@example.com.