USS Nassau Carries Tribute of New York Firemen

By Rudi Williams, AFPS

WASHINGTON, March 28, 2003 — In the spring of 2001, Vince Farrell was en route home from Boston when he heard on his car radio that his former high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., was having its 29th reunion. He decided to attend.

To his disappointment, only about eight guys showed up at the event. They promised to contact all their old friends in an effort to have graduates at the 30th reunion. Farrell decided to try to locate one of his good high school buddies, Russell "Russ" Tjepkema, whom he hadn’t seen since 1973. They were in the last graduating class at Brooklyn Prep High School, which closed in 1972.

"We were going to go away to college together and join the Navy ROTC," said Farrell, a salesman for Industrial Controls, has two sons in the New York Fire Department. "At the last minute, things changed and I couldn’t go. He went on and I hadn’t seen him for about 30 years."

Farrell tracked Tjepkema down on the Internet and e-mailed him in Norfolk, Va. "We exchanged e-mails back and forth for about a week rehashing old times," he said.

Now a Navy captain, Tjepkema invited Farrell and his family to visit him in Norfolk for his change of command ceremony aboard the USS Nassau in the spring of 2001. Today, the Nassau, an amphibious assault ship, is in the thick of things in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Farrell said he and his wife and seven sons "jumped at the opportunity to visit with him and had a great time. We rehashed old memories."

Then tragedy struck the nation on Sept. 11, 2001, and hundreds of his fellow firemen were involved in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Three-hundred forty-three firemen died while trying to save the lives of others.

Farrell said about 90 people where he lives in Rockaway Beach, Queens, N.Y., lost their lives during the terrorist attack. That’s a lot of people to lose in a small seaside community, he said, adding that, fortunately, his two sons, both firefighters, didn’t perish.

But as if that wasn’t enough, Farrell’s cousin and her son were two of the five people killed on the ground when an airliner crashed on takeoff into Belle Harbor, Queens, on Nov. 12, 2001. The death toll on the aircraft was 260.

"Russ got in touch with me and wanted to know how things were," Farrell said. "He was really shook up, not only about 9-11, but about what happened to us and our family.

"He said, ‘Vinny, I’d be honored if you guys could get me a fire department flag. We’d like to raise that flag when we deploy and actually go into battle,’" Farrell recalled.

But getting a flag wasn’t easy. After about two months, Farrell was about ready to give up. His brother-in-law, Tim Smith of the "Big House" fire department on Rockaway Beach, tried to save the day by giving him a fireman’s helmet to present to the Nassau captain and crew.

"He gave me the helmet he’d worn for his entire 20 years in the fire department," Farrell said. "They took his patch off of it, which wasn’t affected by 9-11, and put on a patch of one of the kids who was killed in Rockaway – Eugene Whelan of Engine 230. The Engine 230 was part of Battalion 57 in Brooklyn."

Farrell said the helmet project took on a life of its own. "We had all of the different engine and ladder companies’ patches and Battalion 57 got wind of what was going on and sent in their patches to put on the helmet," he said.

Shortly before heading for Norfolk to deliver the helmet, Farrell attended a fund-raising affair in Manhattan. He recalled talking with his son about going to Norfolk to deliver the helmet and how no one could get a flag.

Overhearing the conversation, the battalion chief said, "What do you mean you can’t get one?"

"The next morning, up comes a fire vehicle to my house and out pop the guys, and they hand me a flag to present to the USS Nassau," Farrell said.

The firemen responsible for securing the flag were Battalion 57 Chief Roderick O’Connor; Lts. John Cullen and Steve Jezycki of Battalion 57, Engine 235; and a former battalion member, Capt. Kevin Calhoun, now assigned to Battalion 13, Ladder 133 of Queens. Cullen is now on active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard.

A large group of firemen flew to Norfolk and delivered the flag and the helmet to the officers and crew of the USS Nassau during an advancement party around Super Bowl Sunday.

"They built this beautiful case to put the flag and the helmet on the entrance to the flight deck," Farrell noted.

When the Nassau docked at Earl, N.J., a few months later, Tjepkema and his crew threw a party for Battalion 57 to show the firemen what they’d done with the helmet and flag. About 60 firemen and their kids attended the party.

"It was an instant bond between the fire department and crew of the Nassau," Farrell said. "It has just been a real emotional, uplifting experience for all the guys in the fire department.

"What was so beautiful was the guys from the fire department were deeply impressed with these young kids, average age, probably 20 years old," he noted. "There was just camaraderie and a bond that was absolutely breathtaking."

To show their appreciation to the firemen, Nassau sailors dressed up a fire truck aboard ship to resemble a New York Fire Department truck with the 230th Engine and 57th Battalion number on it. "There’s a memorial on the front of the truck with the names of six or seven firemen who were killed on Sept. 11," Farrell said.

Sailors aboard the Nassau had a picture of themselves standing in front of the truck. "When the picture reached the fire department, the guys went wild," Farrell said.