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Firefighters depart on a rescue mission

On Wednesday morning, five Hernando County firefighters began a pilgrimage to New York City.

Their mission: to personally deliver $75,000 raised by the Hernando County Professional Firefighters Union Local 3760 for the families of firefighters killed during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center.

"I'm sure when we get up there, it's all going to hit home," said chapter president Lt. Mike Noble as the group prepared to leave from Fire Station No. 22 in Ridge Manor. "But this is something we just have to do."

Most of the donation was raised by firefighters and their families during boot drives, T-shirt sales and individual donations, Noble said. Another $25,000 came from the medical staffs at Brooksville and Spring Hill Regional hospitals.

When the time came to deliver the money, the names of 33 union members went into Noble's baseball cap because only five could make the trip. Firefighters Mike Pastore, Dave Hramika, Pete Paolillo and Brian Dodson will accompany Noble.

The money will go directly to the wives and families of seven firefighters at a station in lower Manhattan, Noble said, rather than through a relief organization.

"We will be writing checks to the families," he said. "That way, every cent goes where it's needed."

Because many of the widows refuse to fill out the paperwork necessary to receive benefits until their husbands' remains are found, time is of the essence, said Paolillo.

"It's really sad, but they still hold out hope," he said. "Meanwhile, they have mortgages and bills to pay."

The group will make a video record of their trip to show those at home where the money went. The video footage will be broadcast on cable Channel 19, Noble said.

"We told people we were going to hand over the money," Noble said. "This will give people a chance to see the faces of the people they have helped."

Among the entourage's duties will be attending funerals of fallen firefighters, Paolillo said. As it is, the city has brought in retired firefighters for the grim task because there are not enough others on the job to go around.

"How you can get up every morning and go to funerals day in and day out, I don't know," he said. "It takes its toll. And we feel like we should pay our respects."

The firefighters plan to return in about a week. They are all using vacation days for the trip.

Noble's wife, Carol, snapped pictures of the crew as they boarded a 37-foot recreational vehicle donated for the occasion by a New York resident.

"I'm glad they're taking the money themselves," she said as the men posed in front of the image of a bald eagle and American flag emblazoned on the motor home's side. "It makes me very proud."

Even as she loses her husband for a week, she said she feels for her widowed counterparts in New York.

"It could be me tomorrow _ even today," she said.