By Jeff Wilkinson The State
COLUMBIA, SC — Just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, students at Lexington County’s White Knoll Middle School made news around the world, raising $540,000 to buy a new ladder truck for a Brooklyn firehouse that lost its truck – and a seven-member crew – when the North Tower collapsed.
Four White Knoll students delivered the initial $350,000 check on the Today show, afterward joining then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-New York Yankees manager Joe Torre in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“It was surreal,” one of those students, Maurice Hallman, said Friday. “It still is.”
Today, more than 12 years after it went into service, the White Knoll fire truck has been retired from its Red Hook, Brooklyn, station and is being used for training by the Fire Department of New York. But quietly, discussions have started about possibly returning the truck to South Carolina as an educational tool to teach young people about 9/11, volunteerism and the unity of the nation after the terrorist attacks.
“It’s kind of wait-and-see,” said Irmo Fire Chief Mike Sonefeld, who traveled to New York in 2001 with the White Knoll students to deliver the check. “There are so many hoops to jump through.”
As for the FDNY, officials say the truck still is serving.
“The department remains incredibly grateful to the students, parents and faculty of White Knoll Middle School for their tremendous generosity in the wake of September 11th,” department spokesman Frank Dwyer told The State newspaper. “The FDNY is exploring the possibility of returning the apparatus to South Carolina further down the road when it is no longer needed for training purposes.”
COMMUNITY EFFORT – Not only did the White Knoll effort, led by then-principal Nancy Turner, make headlines as far as China and garner donations from as far as Australia, there was a remarkable backstory.
It began 134 years before the 9/11 attacks, shortly after the Civil War, when New York City firefighters, former Union soldiers, raised money to buy the burned-out city of Columbia a fire carriage.
The fire that destroyed Columbia in 1865 – historians remain divided on its cause, but Union soldiers receive the lion’s share of the blame – burned much of the area around Main Street, where the city’s fire stations and equipment were located.
Two years later, even though tremendous animosity remained between North and South, the New York firefighters raised money to buy a hose carriage and other equipment. They also built a new fire station, which now houses Villa Tronco restaurant, from the chimney brick of burned Columbia buildings.
A former Confederate colonel, Samuel Melton, told New Yorkers that “should misfortune ever be yours,” he hoped Columbia would “obey that golden rule by which you have been prompted in the performance of this most munificent kindness to a people in distress.”
Nearly a century and half later, principal Turner watched the events of 9/11 in horror and wanted to do something to respond. Across the river in Columbia, philanthropist Sam Tenenbaum was thinking the same thing.
Tenenbaum, Turner and then-Columbia Fire Chief Jack Jansen, a native New Yorker who had ridden Red Hook trucks in his younger days, put the wheels in motion. White Knoll students rallied around the cause, selling buttons and T-shirts and even passing the bucket at a Gamecock football game, which raised $18,000 in one day.
“It was a group effort as a school – the students, teachers, administrators and parents,” said J.P. McManus of Lexington, who was a 12-year-old White Knoll student at the time. “But if the whole community around the Midlands hadn’t helped us, we couldn’t have raised that much money.”
The State newspaper reporter John Monk heard about the fundraising drive, contacted Jansen and learned about the 1867 story. He wrote a story that was picked up by the national wires and then The New York Times. Money began to flow in and a campaign to raise about $200,000 for a pumper truck generated enough donations to buy a ladder truck at more than twice the price.
TEACHING TOOL? – In return, the Red Hook station presented to the students a battered section of sheet metal bearing their nickname, the Red Hook Raiders. It is a section of the door of the ladder truck that was crushed at Ground Zero and is on display at the Lexington County school, still covered with grime and dust from the tower’s collapse.
Current White Knoll principal Guy Smith said that while 9/11 is still vivid in the minds of most Americans, it happened before many of the 11- to 14-year-olds at his school were born.
“Our recent history is their ancient history,” he said.
The truck, if returned, could be a substantial teaching tool for all South Carolina students, much as the display of the wrecked door is today for White Knoll students, Smith said.
“It’s an interesting idea,” he said.
The effort to see whether a return is possible is being led by Lexington county resident Dan Hennigan, a native New Yorker who is an honorary battalion chief with the FDNY. He was one of the principal organizers for Columbia’s 9/11 memorial at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and the area’s annual “Tunnel to Towers” 5k run, which benefits first responders and military members who are hurt in the line of duty.
Hennigan said firefighters could use the truck for educational tours and as an ambassador for the New York fire department.
“I think there’s a chance the truck could come back in some time,” he said.
WHERE TO PUT IT? – Should it return, the question becomes where to house the truck. Hennigan suggested it might be appropriate to display it at Columbia’s fire museum or a Lexington County location.
Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said there probably isn’t enough room in the fire museum to properly display a ladder truck.
“If we could accommodate it, we would entertain the idea,” he said. “We need to see what the best course of action would be if the time comes.”
He added he thought the truck’s return “would be a good idea.”
So does Hallman, the student who rode in the Thanksgiving parade.
“It would be awesome if it came back to South Carolina,” Hallman said.
Hallman is finishing his degree in political science at Winthrop University and wants to pursue a career in international affairs, in part because of his involvement with 9/11.
“It could be an educational tool for students and the nation,” he said. “It would also be a remembrance of what happened on that day, and how the nation came together.”
Former White Knoll student McManus said 9/11 and his involvement raising money for the fire truck also has shaped his adult life. He is now a Lexington County deputy sheriff.
“The sacrifice of the first responders on 9/11 is what inspired me to become a first responder myself,” he said.
He added the truck is more than just a firefighting vehicle to the students who helped raise the money.
“It’s important that we keep that link between us and New York City,” he said. “We were one of the first to help when the crisis hit, and it helped unite us as a nation.”
“It’s part of South Carolina history.”