Going deep: Foundation provides high-water vehicle for Marco first responders

Lance Shearer

When disaster strikes an island, it often takes the form of floodwaters. That was the case on Sept. 28 last year when a powerful Hurricane Ian struck Marco Island with devastating force.

The Marco Island Fire-Rescue Department’s high-water rescue vehicle was invaluable in rescues during the storm surge of Ian, said MIFD Chief Chris Byrne. And now the department has another on the way, courtesy of the Gary Sinise Foundation.

Officers of the foundation, including Marco Island resident Jim Shubert, who is the GSF treasurer, came to Mackle Park on Jan. 27 to announce the donation, and incidentally treat about a hundred local first responders, city staffers and spouses to lunch, provided by Panera Bread. The city’s current high-water truck was on display as a model, with the actual donated truck due to arrive in a few weeks.

“A truck like this is an immense help to us during a hurricane,” said Byrne. “A regular fire truck is not designed for high water. We went and rescued 12 people from Goodland in the middle of Ian. At times, the water was six-feet deep – even this truck was floating.”

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In all, said MIFD Deputy Chief Matt Marshall, the MIFD used the truck to rescue over 50 people during the storm. “Without this, we’d be trapped – a regular truck can’t operate. This vehicle allows firefighters to respond and rescue people who are trapped.”

The high-water trucks are military surplus vehicles, known in the service as crew transports and specifically designed to plow through terrain, and water, where other trucks dare not venture. The MIPD and other city personnel will also make use of the vehicles as needed.

Originally created in 2011 by actor Gary Sinise to benefit military personnel, the GSF has expanded its mission to support first responders, said Shubert. Sinise has had a long career in Hollywood, acting in films including “Apollo 13,” “The Green Mile,” “Mission to Mars,” and most memorably, as “Lt. Dan” opposite Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.”

He also acted in television shows including “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders” and for nine seasons on “CSI:NY,” is an Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Award winner, and was nominated for an Academy Award for “Forrest Gump.” That film formed an enduring connection with servicemen and women throughout the military community, and led to several USO tours, the formation of the 13-piece “Lt. Dan Band” and service as the national spokesperson for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial.“Gary is so sad he can’t be here today,” said another GSF board member, former ambassador to Finland Bob Pence. The luncheon on Marco Island kicked off a weekend of events honoring and benefiting Southwest Florida first responders who helped local communities during and after Hurricane Ian. The whirlwind tour culminated on Sunday, with a First Responder Appreciation Day concert by Walker Montgomery at Caloosa Sound Amphitheater in Ft. Myers.

Sinise has retired from acting and directing to devote himself fulltime to the work of the foundation, said Shubert. Since its inception, GSF has provided nearly a million meals to military and first responders, donated 13,680 pieces of essential equipment, constructed or retrofitted over 160 homes for wounded veterans, and provided over 50 specially adapted vehicles to improve their everyday lives.

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City Manager Mike McNees, four city councilors including Vice Chair Jared Grifoni, Police Chief Tracy Frazzano, and several additional department heads attended and heard Byrne thank the GSF on behalf of the city.

Asked why he got involved with Sinise and his work, Shubert, who served as an Army medic in Vietnam, said “I’m a veteran. I saw what he was wanting to do. This is so we can help the men and women who are fighting for our country and get them the respect that we didn’t get.” The expansion of the mission to aid fire and police officers was a natural, said Shubert. “We take very seriously what happens in the first responder community.”