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Thread: Traditions of 204 key to firehouse protest

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

    Traditions of 204 key to firehouse protest

    Traditions of 204 key to firehouse protest

    The door to Engine 204's firehouse flew open, but the two men who strode forth yesterday morning were rushing only to save their cars from being ticketed by a Sanitation inspector.

    The firehouse had been shuttered two days before. The spaces directly across Degraw St. in Brooklyn still were reserved for members of the Fire Department even on street sweeping days, and the men made known they were fire marshals. The inspector desisted from issuing any of the summonses with which the city is seeking to balance its budget.

    The fire marshals returned to guarding one of the three firehouses that have been closed as a result of the continuing budget crisis. The crunch follows an unprecedented boom, when the city felt so flush that it poured tens of thousands into renovating this very firehouse: a new roof, kitchen, boiler, hot water heater, gas main, waste line and lights, as well as repointed bricks - all just in time to shut the house down.

    The American flag on the pole over the closed main door was twisted upon itself on the pole as if in shame. Two smaller American flags were affixed to the ends of the front bumper of the fire engine parked inside.

    The engine was new, but this was not part of the boomtime renovations. The old engine had been crushed at the World Trade Center.

    A photograph taken that terrible day shows the engine at the foot of what had been the south tower, the proximity suggesting the company had been among the first of the first responders. A length of hose lay in front, perhaps where it had been dropped when the rumbling above sent the company dashing into an underground garage.

    With a bit of luck that was so tragically scarce that day, all the firefighters of Engine 204 survived. They returned to a firehouse they so easily might never have seen again.

    Rushing into danger

    Over the ensuing months, the company joined in searching the Trade Center rubble for less fortunate comrades. A crane lifted the demolished engine bearing "204" from the ruins.

    These three seemingly lucky numerals were painted on a new engine and the firefighters were as fast as always to jump aboard whenever an alarm came in. They continued to rush unhesitatingly into whatever danger fate might present.

    After a run, they returned to quarters hallowed by their willingness to continue on, undaunted. The windows of the real estate offices around the corner on Court St. listed brownstones for sale at $2 million, but there was no more precious structure in the neighborhood than the firehouse on Degraw St., even without the new roof and kitchen. Here was a value that could not be measured in money.

    Or so it seemed until the city announced that Engine 204 would be one of the firehouses closed as a result of a budget gap. The shutting of the hallowed place on Degraw St. was expected to result in an annual saving of about $1 million, or about half the cost of a yuppie brownstone.

    On Sunday, those who assembled to protest the closing notably included Marian Fontana. Her husband, Lt. Dave Fontana, was among the 12 of Squad 1 in Brooklyn who died at the Trade Center. He left behind in his locker his "1620" master key that is issued to firefighters so they can gain access to any firehouse they might be assigned.

    "I keep it on my key chain," Marian Fontana would report.

    This standard-issue item assumed new meaning when the lieutenant's widow used it to open Engine 204's door after the firehouse was officially closed. The turning of the lock with the fallen firefighter's 1620 key made clear a firehouse is a firehouse, be it ill-fated Squad 1 or the more fortunate Engine 204.

    Fontana demanded to be among the protesters who were arrested. The cops might be issuing summonses for sitting on milk crates or taking up two seats on an empty subway train, but they were hardly going to collar a fire widow.

    "Lady, you can lie down naked on the ground. I've been given orders not to arrest you," a cop was heard to say.

    Fontana finally departed with the key. The lock was unchanged yesterday morning, but the newly renovated firehouse remained shuttered and the engine with the three seemingly lucky numbers sat behind a closed door.

    Originally published on May 28, 2003

  2. #2
    Registered User SeaBreeze's Avatar
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    Jan 2002

    In Williamsburg, Feeling for Engine 212 Runs Deep

    In Williamsburg, Feeling for Engine 212 Runs Deep

    As firefighters gather their belongings and officers pack up files for storage, a determined band of protesters in Brooklyn has been keeping watch on their firehouse, trying somehow to stave off its closing by making sure the fire truck stays inside.

    "Once the truck goes, that's it," said Brigitte Veneski, who along with her family has been a driving force behind the protest at Engine Company 212 in Williamsburg.

    It is one of six engine companies in the city that the Bloomberg administration has deemed necessary to shut down to help balance the budget. Like the closing of Engine Company 204 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and Engine Company 36 in Harlem, its closing will result in the end of the firehouse as the neighborhood knows it.

    "If anybody gets sick or something we call the firehouse," said Claire Czachor, who was standing across the street with her friend, Mildred Doshner. "When my husband more or less died at home," Ms. Czachor said, "I called the Fire Department. They were there in minutes."

    Ms. Doshner added, "They're like a security blanket."

    Ms. Veneski's husband, a grocer named Adam Veneski who died in 2000, had stormed the same firehouse when it was threatened in 1975, and the feeling there runs especially deep. On Sunday, the firehouse, on Wythe Avenue, was the scene of a 60's-style sit-in, complete with eight arrests. Protesters jammed pieces of lumber under the door to prop it open and Paul Veneski, one of Mr. Veneski's sons, chained himself to the bumper of the fire truck while others sat in front of it.

    By yesterday, that scene was hardly reminiscent of radical university students storming the administration barricades. About a dozen protesters, mostly women of a certain age, milled about in front or chatted in a blue mesh tent on the sidewalk. One woman rested on a parked motorcycle.

    Several protesters said that they were there out of respect for Mr. Veneski's memory. "Adam fought so hard for it in '75," one said. A friend of Ms. Veneski's, Brigitte Sanchez, had traveled from Ridgewood, while another of the Veneski boys, Robert, and his wife, Luljeta, had come from their home in Dutchess County to take a shift guarding the house.

    For the moment, the fire truck remained inside, along with a handful of fire marshals and other officers able to peek out, as if from a speakeasy, through a small hole cut into the mocking "For Rent" sign taped over a window in the door.

    It is not clear when the trucks will be driven from their houses. Francis X. Gribbon, a spokesman for the Fire Department, would not delineate a timetable. "We haven't moved them yet out of any of the firehouses," Mr. Gribbon said, "but we will in due time." Mr. Gribbon added that this was always meant as a transitional week, with officers remaining at the houses to oversee the transfer of records.

    In the meantime, a lawsuit brought by state and city officials to block the closings is unfolding in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Last week, a judge rejected a request by the plaintiffs for an injunction, and another hearing is scheduled for today.

    So the people in Williamsburg, who say they are fighting for all of the city's engine companies, wait and watch, day and night, a table of snacks and sodas nearby.

    "Why don't you close down City Hall?" asked Guido Cianciotta, who was wearing an F.D.N.Y. hat. "They're useless there."

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