Los Angeles County, California firefighters are undertaking a massive project to do "something special" for the families of New York rescue workers killed on September 11.
They have worked for months to obtain enough donations to offer each family a week-long vacation in Southern California this summer with all expenses paid or waived for transportation, lodging, meals and tons of entertainment.
The idea was born after 800 LACoFD members went to New York on their own time and expense to help out in the wake of the 9/11 disaster. While there, the firefighters became very close with FDNY as they helped console them and search for their fallen brothers.
The firefighters organized additional trips out to New York to visit at the firehouses and attend funerals. But after coming home again they still wanted to do more.
"I called and said what else can we do," said Capt. Gary Walsh, the project chairman. "And they said if you're gonna do something, do something special for the families."
The vacations have been offered to the widows and children under age 24 of all 343 fallen FDNY firefighters, the 23 families of fallen New York Police Department officers, and the 37 families of fallen New York Port Authority Police officers.
"It's a huge undertaking," Walsh said. He estimated that if all 409 families came out with five members each, and needed to pay for everything, the project would cost $2.7 million.
Instead, the project called "Los Angeles County Firefighters Honor FDNY," is working to obtain donated airfares, hotel rooms, ground transportation, meals, theme park admissions, and entry to concerts, sports events, private beaches, surfing lessons, fishing boats and various other entertainments.
"We have more things for these families to do than they could possibly do in a week," Walsh said.
The organizers say this project is unique from other monetary donations or vacation offers because it is aimed at helping the families heal. It also has a very personal nature because of the bond between the two fire departments. "That's why I think our project is different," said LACoFD Communications Manager Kristina Hajjar.
Each family will be met at the airport by an "ambassador" from the LACoFD who can guide them through their visit, and each week there will be a private reception to welcome them. Families may even choose to stay with an LA firefighter's family instead of at a hotel.
The project, spearheaded by Captains Gary Walsh and Ted Garcia, is being coordinated by 37 volunteer members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department and several civilians. They plan to keep running the program from June through September 11, 2002.
Walsh said it was still unclear how many of the families will be coming, but he expects to get numbers within a few days. The invitations were extended to the families through the New York Police Officers Benevolent Association, the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association, the United Fire Fighter Association Local 94 and the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. The unions will be relaying the responses they get back to the LA project coordinators.
Walsh said he is thrilled with the donations being offered for the project. However, the coordinators have so far been unable to secure free air travel and plan to raise the cash for it. However, they are also looking into some creative solutions, and have been in contact with the White House and Fed Ex to see if they can help fly the families out.
Donations of frequent flyer miles, hotel stays, rental cars, restaurant meals and cash are still needed to launch the project.
Walsh hopes to raise cash donations through the sale of a commemorative pin. The pins can be purchased for $5 each at the LACoFD headquarters and at Supercuts hair salons in Southern California. They can also be purchased in packages of 50 or more by calling 866-305-2911.
Every 250 pins sold will fly one family from New York to Los Angeles, said Hajjar.
And unless there is money left over at the end, those organizing the project aren't going to reimburse themselves for their costs. Walsh said he has personally spent about $2,000 on the project. If there is still money left after reimbursements it will go to the Los Angeles County Firefighters Memorial Committee.
Walsh said the project has been gaining momentum, and the organizers are excited to see it come together. They expect the first families to start coming in early June.
"It's been very exciting. We're just really happy to do this for them," he said.
"Los Angeles County Firefighters Honor FDNY" is an independent project of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and retains non-profit status through its affiliation with the Los Angeles County Firefighters Memorial Committee. To find out how you can help, please call the toll-free project line at (866) 305-2911, or call Captain Gary Walsh at (949) 291-1805. Donations should be made out to "Los Angeles County Firefighters Honor FDNY," and mailed to 1508 Alexander Court, Brea, California 92821.