As Rockaway residents deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many took a few moments to pause, reflect and remember another tragedy that deeply impacted the community 12 years ago. Residents gathered at the Tribute Park on the bayside of Beach 116th Street on Wednesday to take part in an annual ceremony in which the lives of those lost on September 11, 2001 are honored.
The 9/11 Tribute Park became one of Sandy’s victims as it was left in complete disarray on October 29th, 2012. However the park, which originally opened in 2005, was in pristine condition as many gathered for the annual ceremony to remember the more than 70 locals who lost their lives during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center 12 years ago.
“The park sustained terrible damage from Sandy,” Nadia Murphy, a board member of Friends of Tribute Park said. “The brick paths were in upheaval, the irrigation and electric systems were destroyed and 85 percent of the plant material was lost,” she said. The park was left covered in garbage, the trees and plants were torn apart and the tribute bricks were ripped up from the ground and remained scattered around the area following Sandy.
Yet with strong hearts and dedication, Murphy, other members of the Friends of Tribute Park and several other volunteers worked hard before the summer to refurbish the park and bring it to an even more beautiful condition. The bricks were replaced to create smooth pathways. Brand new trees, flowers and other plants were placed around the park and the Friends of Tribute Park volunteers continue to maintain the park and water the plants by hand as the irrigation system is not yet replaced.
The Park reopened in June and on Wednesday morning, visitors who entered for the 9/11 ceremony would have never guessed it was touched by Sandy. “It’s amazing how they brought it back so beautiful again,” said Gail Allen, the mother of firefighter Richie Allen, who died while heroically doing his job 12 years ago.
As visitors walked into the park, they were greeted by a newly painted mural on the outside wall. The Friends of Tribute Park wanted to give a clear sign to visitors that the beautiful public space is a tribute to those who died on 9/11. Mike Arbuiso, a firefighter from the firehouse on Beach 116th Street and an artist, was selected to design and paint the wall.
“We thought it would be even more meaningful to have a fireman design it and implement it,” Murphy said. For an entire week, Arbuiso spent his time off from the firehouse, diligently painting the outside wall with a design that he created himself. “I think that it was really wonderful to know that it was a fireman that did it,” Murphy said. “I think that every stroke he painted was with emotion and respect and acknowledgement of what his brothers sacrificed.”
Arbuiso’s tasteful, subtle design includes a blue background; black and purple buntings, which are used to honor those lost, particularly firefighters; sets of three white stars to give it an American touch and a center description which contains the words “9/11 Tribute Park” in bold white lettering and the numbers acknowledging the 343 FDNY members, 23 NYPD members, 37 PAPD members and the total 2,753 people killed on September 11, 2001.
Abruiso noted that he had some help with the project. Eric Witkowski helped with the painting and Peter Basil of Pete’s Painting put on the final clear coat to complete the wall. All of the supplies were also donated by Brown’s Hardware on Beach 116th Street. Murphy estimates that the local hardware store donated more than $1,000 of paint and other supplies which was a huge contribution considering the business is still trying to get back on its feet after Sandy. “That was a big deal financially for them to donate and it’s a lovely gesture,” Murphy said.
Arbuiso was honored to be selected to take on the project. “I’m always proud and honored to be a part of something like that for the reason that it represents a lot of the people lost in the fire department, including someone I knew,” he said. He mentioned that as he worked on the wall, people would stop by in their cars and acknowledge his contribution. “I’m happy with the response that I’ve gotten from people in the neighborhood,” he said. “To see what that park means to people and what it means to everybody in the community, it made it more of a fun challenge to come through with something nice.”
After finishing the wall just in time for Wednesday’s ceremony, Arbuiso said “I’m proud to be the one that’s connected to the park somehow.” He acknowledged the many volunteers that take care of the park throughout the year. “All the work that goes into it represents a good thing in people. The park runs on the continuous acts of people doing the right thing. To be a part of that is a really great thing.”
Murphy was very pleased with Arbuiso’s finished product. “I’m touched and moved by his interpretation of what we wanted,” she said.” It’s just perfect.”
Arbuiso and more than 50 firefighters from the community and around the city gathered at Wednesday’s ceremony at the park. Several helped to raise a large American flag to half-staff as Chaz Peacock sang “God Bless America” to the music of Aerial Acoustics.
The names of the more than 70 locals who were killed were read off as family members and volunteers placed roses around the central memorial which points towards the brand new Freedom Tower. After the names were read, several firefighters placed roses on Firemen’s Rock, as Peacock sang “You Raise Me Up.” Murphy noted that the roses were generously donated by 1-800-Flowers for the ceremony.
To Allen, the park is a nice place where she can bring her grandchildren and teach them about their Uncle Richie. “He’ll never be forgotten,” she said. She described the Tribute Park ceremony as an opportunity for family members of victims and neighbors to come together without having to be in a cemetery-like atmosphere.
Murphy explained that the 9/11 ceremony serves as a way for the community to show their support for those who lost family members. “We have many people who lost family members and loved ones. The most moving thing about the ceremony at the Tribute Park is showing up and giving your attention, respect and acknowledgement to those who lost a loved one,” Murphy said.
Having that support from fellow victim’s family members and those from the community means a lot to Allen. “Meeting with everyone gives you the strength to get through the next year,” she said.
Murphy also noted that the ceremony serves as a way to pay respect to those who continue to risk their lives in the line of duty every day. “It’s for survivors to show respect, not only to the heroes who died, but the heroes who continue to protect us. It’s in tribute to those we lost, but in paying tribute to them, we acknowledge those who remain.”
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