Willing to Look Foolish for Fallen Firefighters

Around City Hall, she is known as the Flag Lady.

Everyone has seen her, with Old Glory hanging from her like a floor-length curtain and a towering red, white and blue Uncle Sam hat atop her head.

But few know the Flag Lady's name, Victoria Stong, or why she shows up five days a week, shortly after 3 p.m., and stands like a lone statue just past the steps of City Hall.

Part of the answer is stretched across the big white double-sided poster board Ms. Stong, 39, hauls with her every day, hoping that some City Hall official, preferably Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, will stop for a closer look.

"Mr. Mayor: Please don't close engine 261 or any engine because you can negotiate with people, but not with fire," the sign reads. "Respectfully and sincerely, Victoria Stong."

Clearly, Ms. Stong, who hopes to draw attention to the Bloomberg administration's plan to close her local firehouse, Engine 261 in Queens, and seven others, is a different kind of protester. She is so polite and so quiet (she speaks only when spoken to) that she might, if not for the flag she bought for $19.95 at Home Depot, be lost amid the more vocal protesters who arrive at the steps, seemingly on the hour, ranting and raving.

"Let everybody else do the screaming and yelling," Ms. Stong, who is unemployed and lives in the Queensbridge Houses, said on Thursday as she prepared to conclude the fourth week of her City Hall stand. "I'm trying to find a respectful way to say, `Hey, could you please rethink this plan before anyone gets hurt because a firehouse got closed.' "

Those who have stopped to talk with Ms. Stong say they admire her approach. "I've seen her out there in the rain, in cold weather," said Eric Gioia, a Queens city councilman who represents her neighborhood but met Ms. Stong for the first time only recently when he stopped for a brief chat. "She's a constant presence, and in her own quiet way, she's a modern day reminder of the silent protest of people like Gandhi."

In truth, Ms. Stong is out to send a much louder message than outrage over Mr. Bloomberg's plan for the firehouses. Ms. Stong, who volunteered at ground zero after Sept. 11, 2001, says she is protesting to honor New York City firefighters, especially the hundreds who died in the terrorist attack.

"I only make a fool of myself for the Fire Department, for their bravery," she said as two tourists approached to read her sign. "I know it's a broken record, but they really are our everyday heroes. How many people do you know who would walk into a fire? They're not a luxury that we can afford to get rid of because it cost too much."

By closing the eight firehouses, the Bloomberg administration, which does not plan to lay off firefighters, estimates that the city will save more than $10 million. It's a calculation Ms. Stong finds troubling. "I saw the sacrifices they made for 9/11," she said. "We shouldn't have to lose any of them after what they did. Is there no respect left for them?"

Though the city appears to be pressing ahead with its plan for the firehouses, Ms. Stong insists she is not wasting her time. "I'm keeping the issue alive," she said. "I have so many politicians give me thumbs up."

So far, Mr. Bloomberg has not spoken with her, though she says he has waved to her once or twice. "He knows I'm here."

And if the mayor were ever to stop over for a chat, she says he would find more of a fan than an enemy. "I'd probably hug him for the smoking ban he created," she said, "but I'd also tell him, in a nice way, keep the firehouses open so the city can put out all its fires.