SAFETY HARBOR — Each year on Sept. 11, bells toll, wreaths are laid and moments of silence are observed at fire houses across the Tampa Bay area.
But this year, several fire departments in north Pinellas County will be wearing their memorial to the 343 New York City firefighters who perished at the World Trade Center 10 years ago.
Firefighters from Safety Harbor, Palm Harbor, Oldsmar, Tarpon Springs and Dunedin will wear official New York City Fire Department T-shirts from their corresponding fire units in New York from Sept. 9 to 11.
"Basically what they're saying is today is New York firefighter day," said retired FDNY Lt. Brian Grisanti, 53, who now lives in New Smyrna Beach.
The idea was the brainchild of Safety Harbor firefighter David Pacheco, who traveled to lower Manhattan in early October 2001 along with Safety Harbor fire marshal Richard "Dick" Brock, Deputy Chief Mike Eash, Capt. Ray Duke and firefighter Mike Pounds.
They worked the grim, daunting tasks of the "bucket brigade," sifting through rubble and searching for bodies to recover.
They attended multiple funerals for firefighters who perished when the Twin Towers collapsed, catching rides from total strangers to make it to the next memorial.
They bunked with New York City firefighters and began sowing the seeds of lasting friendships, inviting their counterparts down to Florida for some much-needed rest. About 20 firefighters took them up on their offer, forging relationships that continue a decade after the worst terrorist attack in American history.
But for the men who were there, the memories are still fresh.
"The site was pulverized," said Brock, 60. "There were no pieces of computers, no pieces of chairs, and the smell, it was a smell you never forget — the smell of jet fuel mixed with asbestos."
Duke said he carries the experience with him every day.
"For me, the feeling today is as strong as it was the day it happened," said Duke, 48. "I think many have forgotten, many are desensitized. But for those of us who were there, our lives were changed forever."
The term "ground zero" has taken on a new gravity for Pacheco, 43, who said the term is too often used to describe incident locations.
"Ground zero is in lower Manhattan," he said. "And that is where it will always be."
For firefighters trained to deal with even the most unexpected things, the experience was sobering.
"In the history of the (FDNY), they had never had to reach outside the department for help," Brock said. "And they couldn't get over the strength and the width of the brotherhood."
Grisanti said it was the kindness and support of people from as far away as small towns like Safety Harbor that helped him and his colleagues through the most difficult days in their department's history.
"It really was amazing," he said. "The way we felt was, even though you guys were 1,000 miles away, that it didn't just happen to New Yorkers, it happened to the whole country, all Americans."
The local firefighters will wear shirts of the same units in New York. For instance, Safety Harbor's Station 53 crew will wear shirts with FDNY's Ladder 53 logo.
FDNY firefighter Jon Cummings, who is temporarily assigned to the Ladder 53 station in the Bronx, just happened to pick up the phone when Pacheco called to inquire about the shirts.
"There's no other greater form of homage," said Cummings, 33. "There really isn't."
Cummings said the pain wrought by 9/11 never fully goes away, but he finds solace "just knowing that other people didn't forget."
Grisanti summed up the gesture without hesitation.
"In a word? Solidarity."
Rita Farlow can be reached at (727) 445-4157 or firstname.lastname@example.org.