Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Opinion

Memorials stolen from a family still grieving

Helen and Michael Gennusa are still grieving.

Their son Michael Jr., 35, died 11 months ago after a single-car crash on Elgin Boulevard in Spring Hill. It was 12:15 on a Sunday afternoon and Gennusa's Nissan left the north side of the road and slammed into a cement utility pole near the corner of Sterling Hills Boulevard. He left behind a bride of seven months, his two children from an earlier marriage, a stepchild, parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and a brotherhood of firefighters. Gennusa had been a medic with the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

Gennusa, who hadn't been wearing a seat belt, became an unfortunate statistic. More than twice a month somebody dies in a Hernando County traffic crash. It's even worse in Pasco County where the number of highway fatalities each year can be three times higher. It's as if we've become numb to the commonality of the carnage. The account of Gennusa's death was contained in a single paragraph inside the Times' metro section two days later.

His mother said she was surprised at the outpouring of support. A big crowd of mourners came to the funeral including friends, county and fire department brass and a woman, Tracy Smith, 40, of Wesley Chapel, whose life Gennusa helped save five years earlier. In 2006, Smith was clinically dead — her heart had stopped after suffering an allergic reaction to an anesthetic. Gennusa and partner Ricky Rineberger helped bring her back to the living.

"I will always have Michael's handprints on my heart,'' Smith wrote in a card to his parents.

The lives Michael touched provided a bounty of memories people wanted to share. As is the case with many fatal crash sites, an on-site memorial emerged nearly immediately. After the funeral service, Helen Gennusa placed a white wooden cross with a pink rose at the foot of the utility pole. The makeshift memorial came to include a picture, flowers, an angel and a miniature fire truck. His children Jordan, 12, and Ariana, 10, added a stuffed toy gorilla and a note for their deceased father.

The family had Michael's body cremated and some of his ashes are in St. John Cemetery in Queens, N.Y., at the grave site of his sister, Maria Renee, the infant daughter the Gennusas lost to crib death 29 years ago. It has a headstone and the family plans a visit to show it to Jordan and Ariana, but the grieving site for others became the utility pole on Elgin Boulevard, just outside the Sterling Hills neighborhood.

"I can't say I visit a lot,'' said Helen, 58. "It's difficult to go to that scene, but a lot of people went out of respect for Michael.''

Respect disintegrated into cowardice some time last weekend. On Monday, April 30, Helen got a text message from a friend. Everything was gone. The cross, the toy animal, the picture, the flowers had disappeared. The only thing left was some butterfly stickers and the message from his wife, Kristie, inked directly on the pole. "HCFR. 545. My hero. In loving memory of my husband.'' Someone also stuck a miniature American flag in the ground.

"People left things there for a reason and if they felt closer to him for that amount of time then nobody had the right to take that away,'' Helen said. "How dare somebody take that away?''

She tried unsuccessfully to track down the missing items. Hernando County Code Enforcement did not remove the memorial. The Sterling Hills neighborhood association and its groundskeeper said they weren't responsible. Elgin Boulevard is a county road, so the state Department of Transportation was not involved.

She wonders if someone assumed the role of civilian code enforcer and decided the memorial had been there long enough.

"I can't believe, it,'' said Michael Sr., 61. "It's almost like when kids go through a cemetery knocking down headstones because there's nothing better to do. It's so disrespectful.''

"They caused more pain,'' said his wife.

Helen Gennusa would like the white cross returned, but she is not optimistic. She wrote letters to newspapers and she and her husband agreed to be interviewed, hoping the publicity will stop someone from repeating a similar theft. Perhaps they can prevent additional anguish for some other family.

As for the one-year anniversary of Michael's death, the Gennusas already had planned a private memorial in their yard. The stone bench is on order and there will be flowers and two plaques — one for each of their deceased children.

"Firemen never die,'' reads the testimonial for Michael Gennusa Jr. "They burn forever in our hearts.''

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