We’re seven years downriver from the day that everything changed. I spent the morning, as I have since then, at Ladder Nine/Engine 33 on Great Jones Street in NYC. These two companies lost 10 men on 9/11.
I’m not part of the house, obviously, so I just stand in the back, simply to pay respects. This year, for the first time in 7 years, I made a frame.
They were the first house I approached with the notion of coming to the giant Polaroid camera for the project that came to be known as Faces of Ground Zero. I went there cause they were literally around the corner from the Polaroid studio. All I had to show them was a 4’x9′ Polaroid of a ballerina in a tutu.
When I rolled it out on the firehouse floor, the reactions were predictable.
These were all I had to show as examples of work. For the one opportunity I had to work the camera prior to 9/11, I had invited Jennifer Ringer, an incredibly lovely dancer, and a principal with the NYC Ballet. She was gracious enough to help me out that day, and I gave her one of the giant Polaroids. She was amazing, staying on pointe in the dark while we spooled up the camera, nailing her position time and time again. (At f45, the camera has only a half inch of depth of field.)
Despite the firehouse banter, that print must have left an impression, cause later that evening came the rap of a halligan against the steel door of the giant Polaroid studio. I opened it, and the company had rolled the truck around to 2nd St. Firefighters poured into the studio.
I worked fast, cause being an active company, they could get called out at anytime. The very first guy to step in front of the lens was John Baldassarre, now the lieutenant at the house. John, a natural leader, broke the ice. The rest of the guys stepped up, and the project grew. Soon, on 2nd St., there would be firetrucks, ESU units, paramedic emergency vehicles, patrol cars, the bomb squad, and, eventually, Mayor Giuliani’s security detail. Along with a bunch of ordinary New Yorkers, all of whom became extraordinary during that desperate time.
I’ve become friends over time with numerous folks who came to the camera, among them Mike and Nuri Wernick. I’ve mentioned them in my blog before. Super people, super couple. Mike was a veteran firefighter at Ladder Nine, survivor of the 93 WTC bombing, and among the first responders on 9/11. He and Nuri run Rising Wolf Garage, one of the only motorcycle garages in all of NY.
It was a natural thing then, for young firefighter Gerard Baptiste to turn to Mike for advice on buying a motorcycle. Gerard had his eye on a real beat up old Honda CB750. A fixer-upper, to put it mildly, seeing as it cost $100, street sale price in the East Village. Along with some other guys in the house, Mike advised against buying the bike.
Gerard was determined, however, and eventually pushed this two wheeled rust bucket in through the firehouse doors, and leaned it against the back wall. It had “long term project” written all over it.
Then Gerard jumped on the truck on 9/11. He was one of the 10 who did not return.
The bike stayed at the back of the house, a reminder of a promise unfulfilled. Until Gerard’s brother firefighters at Ladder 9 and his previous company, Engine 220, got together with corporate support from Honda, and turned the bike into what is now called the FDNY Dream Bike. A small documentary film was made, which you can get a flavor of on youtube.
Fifteen months of restoration later, that old fire sale Honda became the FDNY Dream Bike. (Picture Credit: Kickstart Productions)
It is currently on view at FASNY, the Museum of Firefighting, in Hudson, NY, which houses the biggest and most inspirational collection of firefighting artifacts I have ever seen.
This bike, though, can’t really be described as an artifact, or a display, or a piece of memorabilia. It is the two wheeled dream of a young firefighter who never came back.