Retired FDNY firefighter recalls how a 1914 helmet ended up taking him to Ground Zero

Author: Amanda Hall
Published: Updated:

This Saturday marks 20 years since the September 11th terror attacks, and for a retired firefighter here in Southwest Florida, that tragedy, and a helmet, pulled him back to New York to help.

At 83 years old, Jerry Sanford put on his old uniform, took a walk, and a trip down memory lane.

“I had found an old helmet here at a firehouse in Pelican Bay, and I knew immediately,” Sanford recalled. “That was June 2000; it was from the South Bronx.”

Sanford, who was working for North Collier Fire District after retiring from the New York City Fire Department, made it his mission to get the 1914 helmet back to New York – which he did on September 10, 2001.

“Who would know? September 10 didn’t mean anything,” he said.

“It was on Monday morning. We all went to Ladder 42, Engine 73, and there are hundreds of firemen there that came back, including Father Judge. As it turns out, that was the last mass he ever said.”

Father Mychal Judge was a chaplain who ran into the buildings with his fellow firefighters. The first official death at the World Trade Center.

Jerry Sanford

Sanford was at the airport on his way back to Florida when he learned of the attacks.

“I looked up, and I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Sanford said. “The first plane hit the first tower, and I immediately knew that my brother firefighters would be going and going up.”

Sanford said he somehow got through to fire headquarters, and one of the secretaries answered the phone, “She was hysterical crying. Excuse me a minute, just saying, ‘they’re all gone. They’re all dead.’ and I just couldn’t believe it. I’ll never forget that moment talking to her.”

Sanford knew then he was needed in New York. He returned as a press secretary for FDNY.

The chain of events led him to a place he wasn’t expecting to be just days earlier. “The following Monday, I was back on the pile – I hate that word – I was back at the site six days after the attacks looking down on West Street. I must’ve been 60 feet in the air standing on top of debris and everything, and looking at the firemen that looked like little ants.”

And the support felt was sometimes overwhelming, especially knowing how many lives were lost. “There were thousands of people every day standing there, forgive me for a minute, screaming ‘USA USA, Thank you!’ … 2 o’clock in the morning … 5 o’clock in the morning. It didn’t matter. They were on West Street there, south of Canal Street, cheering us on. Us!”

Those memories are now threaded together in his book titled “It Started With a Helmet.”

By the way, he recently reunited with that helmet in the South Bronx.

“I was in tears,” he said, “The history that this helmet has.”

But he said it certainly does not feel like it’s been 20 years, “It’s kind of… The years have passed, but what I’ve found is: people have forgotten. They’ve forgotten 9/11 and what happened. Twenty years ago, we were one people. We were one neighborhood. We were all New Yorkers. You can’t buy a flag. You couldn’t find a flag.”

Sanford still hopes we can get back to that sense of unity and patriotism one day.

A 9/11 memorial at Freedom Park at 1515 Golden Gate Pkwy in Naples was the backdrop for our conversation, and Sanford was instrumental in getting it built.

It features a bench to mark where each attack happened and bricks to remember the people who died on Sept. 11 and all those we lost fighting since that day.

Sanford’s book is in classrooms all across the country to teach generations to come about September 11th through his unique perspective – and to remind all of us to never forget.

If you’d like to donate to help provide complimentary copies of the book to schools, click here.

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