Rolling out a tribute to firefighters in New Dorp

Vintage pumper engine has been restored to honor a father and the heroes who lost their lives at Ground Zero

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Kenneth Cavendish has to be the envy of every child -- and child at heart -- in his New Dorp neighborhood, and beyond.

Imagine being able to drive your very own shiny, red fire engine around Staten Island -- or parking it in your driveway. Talk about an attention-getter!

But Cavendish's 1946 Chevrolet Champion Darley pumper is much more than a grownup's toy; it is all about serious stuff like honor, bravery and dedication. Cavendish, born in Brooklyn, was inspired by the events of Sept. 11 to acquire and restore the pumper in memory of the city firefighters who gave their lives that terrible day, as well as his father, John.

Now retired, John Cavendish, Kenneth's dad, was a firefighter in Brooklyn for 33 years. For 30 of those years, he was assigned to Ladder Co. 114 when it was one of the busiest houses in the city. He also worked for six arduous months with other retired firefighters in the recovery effort at Ground Zero.

It was only natural that his son would want to honor his father and his colleagues.

SMITTEN AS A YOUNGSTER

And it seems only natural that Ken Cavendish would love fire engines.

"When I was a boy, my father would take me to the firehouse, put me in the cab of a fire engine, belt me in, and I'd get a ride," he said.

Once Cavendish decided to buy his own, he began to search nationwide. There were over 200 possibilities on the Internet, and he wrote dozens of e-mails and made many more calls before whittling down his options to about 50 vehicles.

He found the perfect pumper in a small Colorado town, where it had been retired from a volunteer fire company. Even better, the price came down when the sellers learned more about his project.

Cavendish's wife, Dr. Michelle Giumenta, was 100 percent behind her husband's effort.

A pediatric dentist, she's worked hard to make sure her young patients feel comfortable and relaxed when they visit her office, especially the special-needs kids she often sees. A shiny, red fire engine parked outside was just what the doctor ordered to make a visit to the dentist more appealing.

Even for adults, it's almost worth going to the dentist to sit at the wheel of this restored beauty.

The Cavendishes have been married almost nine years and have a 10-month-old son, Christopher. These days, the pumper bears his initials (CSC) and the number 343 -- that's how many FDNY firefighters were lost on Sept. 11.

"When you retire a fire truck from active service, you have to personalize it, give it a name," Cavendish explained.

STARTED IN THE ARMY

The 1946 Chevrolet pumper began its working life as a green Army fire engine. After serving its time in the military, it was pressed into duty by the volunteer company. Eventually, however, its years caught up with it and the engine was retired and simply taking up space in the Colorado firehouse.

The pumper only had about 6,000 miles on it, and was in pretty good shape, thanks to the dry Colorado air and a low incidence of fires. Its motor was working, but Cavendish enlisted the help of a friend who moves heavy machinery to transport it to a Brooklyn body shop. That's where the real work began.

Cavendish was a natural for restoring the pumper. He works for Architectural Grille in Rosebank, his father-in-law Anthony Giumenta's company. The company specializes in architectural metalwork.

He spent 12 months sanding, smoothing, priming and rechroming parts, before the vehicle was painted -- what else? -- fire engine red.

"Even picking out the color was tough. There were so many reds to choose from," he said.

Flashy gold striping proved to be the icing on the cake.

NEW CALLING

Now Engine 343 has a new home -- and a whole new role.

It made its first public appearance in the Travis Fourth of July Parade earlier this month, to rave reviews. But that was only the beginning for the beautiful vehicle. In September, it will be rolled out for the G.R.A.C.E. Foundation's picnic where it's sure to delight children of all ages.

Dr. Giumenta is on the board of the Foundation, which advocates for autistic children and their families.

The pumper also will be part of Dr. Giumenta's annual holiday party for her patients, where Cavendish always plays the role of Santa.

SOMETHING SPECIAL

Fire engines are special. When I was a little girl, my father would often take me for a walk to the neighborhood fire station, and the firefighters would lift me into the driver's seat and put a big firehat on my head.

I was smitten, and have remained so.

There's a little red pumper parked on Richmond Terrace that never seems to move, and is slowly deteriorating. I once tracked down its owner, who works in a carnival, to see if he'd sell it, but he was unwilling. It seemed so sad and lonely, parked there all by itself.

It turns out that Ken Cavendish tried to buy that same fire engine, also without any luck. But thankfully, he continued his quest, and Engine 343 is the result.

There's something about a fire engine that makes people smile. You're overjoyed to see one in an emergency, of course, because rescue is at hand. But when a fire engine or ladder truck is passing by, don't you feel the impulse to wave? It seems only natural.

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