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Fundraiser helps victims of terror

Funny how sometimes things work out exactly as they should.

Take the art sale last month at Your Arts Desire in Spring Hill that benefited the families of firefighters killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

To gallery owner Mary Petricone's surprise, the sale that started out as a little art auction for kids blossomed into a sale of artwork donated by the area's top artists (including internationally acclaimed painter James Rosenquist) and raised a whopping $22,000.

She immediately began to worry about how to get all that money into the hands of firefighters' families themselves instead of into a general fund where she couldn't follow the dollars to the recipients.

She was still wondering how she could do that when she went with her mom to buy a new Saturn in Port Richey a few days after the sale.

"This guy Phil was talking with us, and Mom told him about the art show," Ms. Petricone said. "He said, "A couple that was in here just got back from burying their son-in-law up there.' " She asked him to have the couple call her.

It turned out that Teresa and Peter Accardi's son-in-law, Dennis Carey, was a member of Squad 288's hazmat team in North Queens, one of the first to respond to the Twin Towers attack.

As Ms. Petricone talked with Mrs. Accardi, she learned that their daughter, Jeannie, lives in Queens, where Ms. Petricone grew up, and that the widow was just a couple of years older than Ms. Petricone herself. She also learned that Squad 288 had lost 19 men, and their comrades were having a tough time of it, what with going to funerals and trying to keep the firehouse going with a skeleton crew.

The more Ms. Petricone heard, the more she began to think that the chance conversation at the car dealership happened for a reason.

"We knew we couldn't help all 343," she said, a reference to the 343 firefighters killed in the Twin Towers' collapse. Besides, all her efforts to talk with the large relief agencies had been fruitless. "They never called me back," she said.

She bought an airplane ticket to New York on Oct. 28 and flew up with her checkbook in hand, determined to hand a $22,000 check to the firefighters at the Squad 288 station house so they could help out the families of their fallen comrades.

Two days later, that's exactly what she did.

"I told them this was from a small town that wanted to be a part of doing something to help," she said.

Squad 288 firefighter Phil McArdle put the check into a specially designated bank account provided for free by the bank, with all the legal, tax and accounting chores done by a volunteer attorney.

The art show money will be divided equally among the families of the 19 men from Squad 288 killed in the attack to cover immediate needs until other help comes.

"I wish you could have seen the tears in their eyes," Ms. Petricone said of the emotionally drained and physically exhausted Squad 288 firefighters. "They are truly living through a nightmare, and (they are) the most caring people you could ever hope to meet," she said.

At the time she was there, Squad 288 firefighters were keeping the firehouse going with only 15 men, fewer than half the 35 the firehouse should have. Since then, retired firefighters from around the country, including one from Florida, have gone to North Queens to answer phones and do other chores to help Squad 288 get through this.

The men told Ms. Petricone their stories _ how they saw the towers hit by airplanes from their station, how they raced across bridges and through the Battery Park Tunnel to get to the site, how they dragged an injured photographer to safety, how they watched the towers come down.

All the while, seeing the impact their stories were having on her, even as she asked them to tell her more, they kept checking to make sure she was okay.

And even though those firefighters had a million distractions, they took time to call Ms. Petricone at her hotel that night to make sure she was all right.

She went back to the firehouse the next day for one last goodbye.

"It's sort of like you're enveloped in the feeling, and you don't want to leave," she said.

_ Squad 288's Web site is www.squad288.com. Click on "memorials" for photos.

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