Nine years may seem like a long time ago, but for Jerry Sanford, the 9-11 terrorist attacks feel like they just happened yesterday.
That’s because Sanford dedicated 30 years with the New York City police and fire departments, first as a police officer, then as a firefighter, and tiller man on the back of an FDNY fire engine. Sanford worked for 10 more years in the New York City Press Office, until 1997 as press secretary to New York City Fire Commissioner Tom Van Essen, before retiring and moving to Florida with his family.
Even though Sanford had retired, he soon heard the call of the fire service again, and returned to a firehouse — this time at North Naples Fire Control and Rescue District as the public information officer. Every day at the district was different. And Sanford soon became involved in all aspects of communications with local media outlets and community organizations for the district, where he works today.
The discovery and journey to NYC
An antique helmet brought Sanford back to New York City, just a week before the fateful day of the 9-11 attacks.
“We were presenting a helmet from a son of a New York City firefighter who brought the helmet to us here in North Naples,” Sanford said. “It was a 1914 leather fire helmet , and we were returning it to Ladder 42 in the South Bronx. The rededication ceremony happened to be on September 10, where I was reunited with Father Michael Judge, and friend, Mayor Giuliani.”
The next day, Sanford was in an airport in Pittsburgh, flying back to Naples with officers of the North Naples fire district when the planes struck the World Trade Center.
“We were in Pittsburgh changing planes, when Wayne Jones called me over to the television to show me the towers fell. Our plane attempted to take off, but the FAA grounded all of the planes nationwide. We rented a car, and returned on a Wednesday, the day following the attacks,” said Sanford of the attacks, which took many of his close friends he reunited with just the day before.
Disbelief was Sanford’s initial thought in seeing the planes strike the World Trade Center at first.
“Initially, terrorism didn’t enter my mind,” he said. “I thought it was a mishap by a local commuter plane. However, when the second plane hit the building, I realized it was an attack of some kind.
“Another thing that I immediately thought was firefighters were going in, and going up, and I wanted to be in New York to assist them,” Sanford said.
Returning to duty in NYC after the attacks
“I left on the Saturday following the attacks. It happened on a Tuesday, and I went back on a Saturday, and stayed up there for five weeks. On the first night, I stayed on the S.S. Hope, a hospital ship, then I stayed in various hotels,” said Sanford of how he lived in New York City in his days of working wherever he was needed in the aftermath of the attacks.
“It was mentally and physically exhausting going to the many wakes and funerals for friends who were killed,” Sanford remembered, while at the same time he assisted major news organizations in their coverage of the attacks.
When Sanford returned to Naples, he began another journey to remember everyone who perished on 9-11.
“There were a lot Gulf Coast retired firefighters who knew a lot of the people who were killed, and so did I,” said Sanford. “(Collier County) Commissioner Fred Coyle and John Veit came up with the idea for a poster contest asking what freedom means to you? That was done in local schools. From there, it grew to where we are today, and we started it in 2004.”
What county leaders and Sanford started became what is now known as Freedom Memorial located on the corner of Goodlette-Frank Road and Golden Gate Parkway. The Freedom Memorial is nearing completion. The memorial is the vision of Gerry Ladue, a Golden Gate Estates artist whose conceptualization of a memorial was selected, because of its representation in honoring all aspects of the locations of the terrorist attacks.
“The bricks people have ordered are delivered, and are starting to be placed,” said Sanford.
However, fundraising for the memorial is currently a bit sluggish due to the slow economy, Sanford said.
Sanford recently enlisted help from his friends in the community, including members of the Gulf Coast Retired Firefighters Association, to lend a hand in painting the U.S. flag on the memorial, which is one of the major focal points of artist Gerry Ladue’s vision.
Honoring the fallen this year
Sanford welcomes all ages to join him and local fire, police, emergency service personnel, and retired fire officers in remembering those who served and those who perished from the attacks at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church at 5:30 p.m. this Saturday.
“We have two more pieces of World Trade Center steel this year. In addition, I had a cross made, which is cut out of steel from the World Trade Center. Father Gerald Critsch will bless the steel at the conclusion of the mass,” Sanford said.
“I feel people forgot. I think people forget that day, and how we felt as a nation. And I want to get back to how we felt that day.”