Vermont sends Christmas trees to New York firehouses

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(Host) Thanks to a handful of Vermonters, Christmas came early this year for NYC firefighters and their families.

VPR’s Beth Schmidt has more.

(Sound of volunteers packing up trees.) “They’re setting up now, any of the tree stands with a bag or a box on top, and cider in front of it are all set to go, put that in your car and they’ll give you a tree and lights. I think the lights might be in the bag already. It’s all set to go.”

(Schmidt) The NYC Fire Academy on Randall’s Island bustles with activity. Hundreds of New York City firefighters are here to pick up Christmas trees, courtesy of Vermont’s Department of Agriculture and the Vermont Christmas Tree Growers Association.

The firemen are dressed in their black, blue and yellow uniforms. They arrive in fire engines, SUV’s, and pick-ups. When they climb out of their vehicles, they stop to marvel at the trees and the care packages set aside for each of the city’s 240 firehouses.

(Firefighter) “These come right from Vermont, right, these trees? Wow. Very nice.”

(Schmidt) As a lieutenant from the Bronx watches his men pick out a tree, he shakes his head in disbelief.

(Lieutenant) “The generosity just doesn’t end, it’s amazing.”

(Schmidt) The men of Engine Company 35 arrive from Manhattan on their fire truck. As they climb down off the rig, they stop to admire a banner draped over the side of a Vermont truck.

(Firemen) “Well it says up there Vermont loves FDNY. The FDNY loves Vermont also.”

(Schmidt) The New York City Fire Department was decimated on Sept. 11. In all, they lost 343 men. Many of the survivors say it’s hard to get into the holiday spirit.

(Firefighter) “It’s been a tough time obviously this last fall, so when we see things like this, you know, not that it’s gonna, it makes things a little bit better for us, you know. So.”

(Schmidt) As an engine company from Spanish Harlem loads their tree on top of their fire truck, a firefighter leans off the back and says,

“God Bless ya’s all, thank you.”

(Schmidt) On the other side of the parking lot, Lieutenant Governor Doug Racine helps unload a truck that’s stocked with tree stands, lights and apple cider. He wears a New York Fire Department baseball cap. As far as the firemen know, he’s just a guy from Vermont, a guy who gave up his weekend to hand out trees and care packages.

As Racine mingles with a ladder company from Staten Island, he marvels at the emotional strength of these men.

(Racine) “September 11 made the neighborhood a lot larger, and we’re all neighbors. And Vermont’s doing it’s little bit to help these folks recover.”

(Schmidt) Ken Mickage drove more than an hour to get to Randall’s Island. When he’s given a tree, he’s overwhelmed by it’s beauty and size.

(Mickage, laughing) “Too big? No, what we’ve got? Twenty-four foot ceilings in our firehouse? Holy cow.”

(Scmidt) Mickage is a member of one of the hardest hit companies in the entire New York City Fire Department. When the World Trade Towers collapsed, Squad 1 lost twelve men – nearly half their company.

(Mickage) “You wanna put it right in the corner? Kitty-corner? Here’s we go? You wanna do it the other way?”

(Schmidt) Here on Randall’s Island, Mickage gets some help as he loads the tree into the back of his pickup. When Mickage arrives at Squad 1’s firehouse in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, the guys help him set up the tree.

On Saturday, Squad 1 will host a Christmas party for their children at the firehouse. The men of Squad 1 say they’re trying to get into the spirit of things, but it’s hard. Their twelve brethren who died left behind 27 children. Twenty-seven children. That’s a number Lieutenant John Zazulka says he cannot comprehend.

(Zazulka) “Actually, it’s gonna be a tough Christmas for everybody around. A lot of children lost their fathers. We’re trying to work through it right now. Ya know?”

(Schmidt) As the squad stands around their towering Vermont Christmas tree, Ken Mickage looks up and says,

“Vermont. The little state with the big heart.”

(Schmidt) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Beth Schmidt in New York City.

(“Deck the Halls.”)

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