An Eternal Flame for a 'Revered' Firefighter

December 24, 2001

It was about three days after the Sept. 11 attacks. The members of the South Hempstead Volunteer Fire Department had been wrenched from their daily lives and put on what would be a week of continuous standby duty at their firehouse. Their eyes had been glued to CNN pretty much the whole time. Suddenly one of the guys saw a familiar face in the endlessly cycling news clips: Joseph Hunter, 32 -- a city firefighter with Squad 288 who had been a South Hempstead volunteer since he turned 18 -- walking into the World Trade Center with two other firefighters in the disaster's early minutes. Hunter had been missing all week.

In the widely used video segment, panicked, hurt people are running out of the south tower. Smoke and debris are everywhere. Hunter looks straight at the camera, then looks up at the building. Then he goes in.

"He was probably the most revered member of our department," said former chief Joe Remy, a 35-year member who had known Hunter since he was a small boy who got excited every time the fire truck went past his house. Remy helped organize a memorial service in early November for Hunter, whose body has not been found.

It wasn't just that Hunter was 6-foot-2 and stunningly handsome that attracted people to him, though Remy admitted that didn't hurt. The young bachelor always drew lively crowds when bartending in Rockville Centre and Long Beach on the weekends.

What really set the firefighter apart was his compassion. A developmentally disabled man had become one of the firefighter's fans and would come every Saturday night to take his place among the crowd gathered at the bar. "Hunter took him under his wing, and God forbid anybody picked on that man," Remy said.

It was the South Hempstead department's racing team, the Rascals, that first won Hunter's interest. He handled the hydrant during hose competitions, a job that demands perfect timing. And after joining the city fire department six years ago, Hunter quickly distinguished himself; two years ago he joined the elite Maspeth-based squad, which is trained to respond to terrorist attacks. That firehouse lost more men than any other in the city Sept. 11.

The South Hempstead department has had a temporary memorial to Hunter since Sept. 11. They plan to install an eternal flame outside the firehouse and to rename its home on the corner of May Street and Weber Avenue "JoeHunter Way."

The volunteers know Christmas Eve is going to be tough for Hunter's parents, Joseph and Tessie, so they plan to go over to their home enmasse that night and sing a fewcarols.

"So maybe they won't think about it for a half hour," Remy said.

-- Elizabeth Moore (Newsday)