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Thread: Renewed spirit; Fire equipment expert restores 1892 wagon to honor heroes of the FDNY

  1. #1
    Registered User SeaBreeze's Avatar
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    Jan 2002

    Renewed spirit; Fire equipment expert restores 1892 wagon to honor heroes of the FDNY

    Renewed spirit; Fire equipment expert restores 1892 wagon to honor heroes of the FDNY

    Copyright 2002 Boston Herald Inc.
    The Boston Herald...08/05/2002


    HOPE, Maine - Like most Americans, Andy Swift seethed with sorrow and anger after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A former fireman, Swift grieved for the New York firefighters caught in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

    "I needed something to hammer on," he recalled.

    So one of the country's premiere fire equipment restorers decided to do what he does best: He offered to restore for free a piece of equipment for the New York Fire Department.

    Ten months later, on a searing-hot July day, the finished "gift" stood gleaming in the sun outside Swift's workshop here.

    With excruciating attention to historical accuracy, Swift and a dedicated group of artisans and firefighters restored a 1892 horse-drawn fire-hose wagon that had sat neglected for years in a FDNY training center. Instead of hauling hoses to fires, however, the restored wagon will be used as a funeral caisson to be pulled by a fire company taking a comrade on his or her last journey.

    "It's not one of the most intricate things we've ever done but it's certainly the heaviest thing we've ever done," Swift said. "It's gift from firefighter to firefighter."

    You can't miss Firefly Restorations, even on the back roads of rural Maine. Fire engines - some rusted hulks, some fully restored - line the front and side yards outside a block-long building. Inside the structure, a 1968 converted chicken barn, the cool air is ripe with the oily odor of old metal and sharp scent of varnish.

    The machines awaiting restoration chronicle the history of American firefighting, from the hand-driven water pumpers, to the coal-fired, horse-drawn steam engines, to bulky gasoline-powered trucks. "These are heirlooms for fire departments. To some degree, they are almost sacred things," Swift said.

    A 48-year-old father of two sons, Swift is the kind of guy who wears oil and grease the way others wear suits and ties. A native of Maine and a mechanic by nature, Swift and his wife, Kathy, moved to Alaska (by motorcycle, no less) in the '70s, where he worked as a fireman.

    Swift got his first taste of restoration in 1984, working on a 1907 Ahrens steam fire engine in Valdez, Alaska. There he met Ken Soderbeck of Hand in Hand Restorations in Jackson, Mich., who became Swift's mentor and is now his partner.

    Returning to Maine in the late 1980s, Swift decided to try to make a living at restoration. He bought and converted the chicken barn about six years ago. After some tough times, Swift developed a reputation among fire memorabilia circles. Entertainer Jay Leno, for example, frequently calls for advice on the restoration of his 1941 American LaFrance fire engine.

    The name "Firefly" comes from the name for a kind of steam engine, reflecting the sparks that would shower off the back "like a bunch of fireflies" as steel wheels bumped along cobblestone streets.

    "We always thought it was such a cool name for a fire engine," said Swift, whose drooping moustache and longish hair underscore his lingering '60s spirit.

    Swift likes to say that word of mouth made his business; he needs no advertising, no business cards and no Web site, although he's had to amend that boast after 15-year-old son David created

    "We're really passionate about what we do," Swift said. "We want it to be accurate, because I feel if it's not accurate you're lying to future generations."

    That passion shows in the careful restoration of an ornate 1921 Seagrave fire truck for a Delaware fire company. The design harks to a time when firemen lovingly added lavish decorations to their equipment in an effort to outshine fellow companies.

    The truck's sides, for example, were decorated with nautical oil paintings. But the body and engine needed extensive work, so Soderbeck removed the originals, took digital photos and transferred the images to archival paper. The paper was attached to truck and coated with varnish.

    With such touches, the truck is "historically accurate in every way," Swift said. Moreover, "it could go back into service."

    After Sept. 11, Swift and Soderbeck talked about restoring a steam engine for the FDNY. Through a client, they contacted Deputy FDNY Commissioner Tom Fitzpatrick, who, coincidentally, had long been interested in restoring an 1892 hose wagon to use as a funeral caisson.

    Thus, on a snowy day in December, the hose wagon arrived in Hope by truck. With a meticulousness that bordered on obsession, Swift began the project. He and Soderbeck "sat down, looked at it, figured out, scrutinized. We scratched our head over how to do stuff." E-mails flew between Hope and Jackson. "There was a lot of waking up in the middle of the night: 'Ah, let's do this.' "

    The wagon had been restored (inaccurately, in Swift's opinion) in the 1950s, and Swift poured through old photographs and books to determine authentic configurations and colors; he settled on an off-white body and red wheels, reminiscent of colors used by the FDNY before 1915.

    Most of the wood on the wagon had to be replaced and the brass fixtures restored or replaced. Rob Saucier, a wheelwright and fire captain from Gardiner, Maine, did much of the woodwork and restored the wheels.

    In April, the wagon was shipped to Michigan, where Soderbeck decorated the wheels with traditional patterns, applied gold leaf and added design motifs based on both his historical knowledge and consideration of the wagon's use in funerals. "We had to really reach down and figure out what was going to be appropriate this time around," Swift said.

    While Swift and others donated their time (more than 3,000 hours' worth), about $ 3,500 was raised for materials from Maine firefighters.

    On July 27, the wagon was formally presented to the FDNY in a ceremony at the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Maine. When the wagon returns to New York in October, "it's kind of a 'mission accomplished' sort of thing," Swift said.

    Although, he knows, "it's never going to end."

  2. #2
    Administrator Neil's Avatar
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    Dec 2001
    South West

    'This project could only come from Hope, Maine'


    FDNY representatives Thomas McDonald, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Al Miskiewicz pose in front of the caisson. In his remarks, Fitzpatrick, noting the significance of the caisson project, said it could only come from Hope, Maine, home of Swift's Firefly Restorations

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