Sheepshead Bay

‘As long as I’m breathing … there will be a memorial’: Sheepshead’s grassroots 9/11 vigil

September 12, 2019 Lore Croghan
Candles illuminate Sheepshead Bay’s 9/11 memorial mural on the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Eagle photo by Mark Davis

Sheepshead Bay remembers them.

There’s Lucy Fishman, who wanted to take her 3-year-old son to his first day of school, but instead went to work at Aon Corp. on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.

And Firefighter Frank Palombo of Brooklyn’s Ladder Company 105, which headed for the South Tower of the World Trade Center that morning.

And Abe Zelmanowitz, who refused to leave behind his wheelchair-bound friend and coworker at Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield in the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

And Todd Beamer, who famously said, “Let’s roll!” when he and other passengers rushed the cockpit of hijacked United Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Each one was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Each one’s name appears on the wall of a handball court at Bill Brown Playground in Sheepshead Bay.

Mary Bracken touches her daughter Lucy Fishman’s name on Sheepshead Bay’s 9/11 memorial wall. Eagle photo by Mark Davis
Mary Bracken touches her daughter Lucy Fishman’s name on Sheepshead Bay’s 9/11 memorial wall. Eagle photo by Mark Davis

A mural bears their names and those of more than 400 other people — some from Brooklyn, others not — who also died on Sept. 11, 2001, or perished later because of 9/11-related illnesses.

Anguished neighborhood resident Ray Fiore (often called Rockin’ Ray) painted the mural after digging in the rubble for 28 hours at Ground Zero. The mural has slogans on it such as “In Memory of Our Heroes,” as well as “Rest in Peace” and “God Bless America!” A huge American flag is painted in its center.

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An estimated 150 people gathered by the mural on 9/11’s 18th anniversary on Wednesday night to honor its victims and heroes with a candle-light vigil.

There has been a memorial service on every 9/11 anniversary at the handball court on the corner of Avenue X and Bedford Avenue. The organizers are local residents who formed the Brooklyn/Bedford Park 9/11 Memorial Committee in February 2002 — including Fishman’s mother, Mary Bracken.

At the Wednesday evening vigil, Bracken wore a shirt with a photo on the back of debris raining down from the World Trade Center with the caption, “My life has crumbled without you.”

Somber faces are etched with grief at Sheepshead Bay’s commemoration of the 18th anniversary of 9/11. Eagle photo by Mark Davis
Somber faces are etched with grief at Sheepshead Bay’s commemoration of the 18th anniversary of 9/11. Eagle photo by Mark Davis

Fishman was 36 years old when she died.

Before the vigil began, her mother told the Brooklyn Eagle about having a sample of her DNA taken a couple weeks after 9/11. Bracken was in a room full of people waiting to provide DNA in hopes of having their loved one’s remains identified.

“The pain in people’s eyes was so prominent,” Bracken remembered.

She feels that many people are starting to forget about 9/11 — although in Gerritsen Beach, where she lives, it’s on a lot of families’ minds because first responders there are dying of 9/11-related cancers, she said.

During Wednesday night’s commemoration, Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts marched in a color guard.

Police officers from the 61st Precinct hold candles at Bill Brown Playground’s 9/11 commemoration. Eagle photo by Mark Davis
Police officers from the 61st Precinct hold candles at Bill Brown Playground’s 9/11 commemoration. Eagle photo by Mark Davis

Brooklyn/Bedford Park 9/11 Memorial Committee member Tina Gray spoke about how devastated she was by Democratic district leader and former City Council member Lew Fidler’s death in May.

He was the only politician invited to the Sheepshead Bay 9/11 commemoration. When he was at their memorials, he was just plain Lew, Gray said.

His widow, Robin Fidler, spoke at Wednesday night’s vigil.

“I just want to wish everyone who had a personal loss, those first responders who helped everyone that day and all the United States — I wish for all of us to have inner peace, the strength to carry on and to feel love and joy in our hearts,” she said.

A Boy Scout holds an American flag at Sheepshead Bay’s 9/11 commemoration. Eagle photo by Mark Davis
A Boy Scout holds an American flag at Sheepshead Bay’s 9/11 commemoration. Eagle photo by Mark Davis

During the memorial, Gray thanked “the heroes who protect us every day,” including members of the NYPD, FDNY and Armed Forces.

She’d phoned singer Dave Carroll, who wrote a song called “Everyday Heroes” about first responders. He sent CDs of the song to give to local police officers and firefighters.

“Someone hurtin’ called 9-1-1 / And the siren’s saying hope is on the way / There’s a hero racing to help a stranger today,” is the song’s refrain.

Fiore, the man who painted the handball court mural, now lives in Colorado and has health problems. He sent a letter that Gray read at the vigil.

The letter said he hopes to be well enough to come back to Sheepshead Bay for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. If he does, he plans to repaint the flag that’s on the mural and touch up the inscriptions of the names.

Long may it wave. Seen at Bill Brown Playground’s 9/11 anniversary gathering. Eagle photo by Mark Davis
Seen at Bill Brown Playground’s 9/11 anniversary gathering. Eagle photo by Mark Davis

Around 7:35 p.m., the sky was dark, and everybody lit candlesticks handed out by the vigil organizers.

About 10 minutes later, they lit flat-bottomed candles that were laid on the ground along the length of the mural. When they were done, an ethereal glow illuminated the red and blue painted names of the dead.

Gray read an open letter to the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks, telling them their efforts to destroy our country failed.

“You seem to be incapable of understanding that we don’t live in America,” Gray said. “America lives in us.”

To end the memorial vigil, the organizers played a recording of Frank Sinatra’s song “New York, New York” to lighten the mood.

A firefighter heads for the handball court where Sheepshead Bay’s 9/11 memorial is held. Eagle photo by Mark Davis
A firefighter heads for the handball court where Sheepshead Bay’s 9/11 memorial is held. Eagle photo by Mark Davis

The annual commemoration grew out of vigils that neighborhood residents held by the handball court mural on the 11th of every month following the terrorist attacks. When the weather got wintry, their numbers dwindled.

The people who kept turning out anyway formed the Brooklyn/Bedford Park 9/11 Memorial Committee.

“We decided we just couldn’t let it go,” committee member and longtime Homecrest resident Angela Sabino told the Eagle.

“They were people who were just going to work that day, or getting on a plane,” Sabino said of the 9/11 victims. “They’re not forgotten.”

Attendance numbers at the Sheepshead Bay 9/11 anniversary vigil have dropped in recent years, said Gray, who’s a second-generation Sheepshead Bay resident. Hundreds of people came to the memorials in the first years after the terror attacks.

From left, 9/11 memorial organizers Angela Sabino, Tina Gray and Mary Bracken, who’s standing next to her daughter Lucy Fishman’s name painted on the wall. Eagle photo by Mark Davis
From left, 9/11 memorial organizers Angela Sabino, Tina Gray and Mary Bracken, who’s standing next to her daughter Lucy Fishman’s name painted on the wall. Eagle photo by Mark Davis

The organizers vow to keep the yearly vigils going.

“As long as I’m breathing and alive, there will be a memorial,” Sabino said.

“These are our family members, friends and victims — most of all, victims,” said Gray.

The Brooklyn/Bedford Park 9/11 Memorial Committee hasn’t sought out funding for the anniversary vigil from politicians or big corporations, “so we’re not indebted to anybody,” Gray said.

In 2010, the color guard of the USS New York appeared at the Sheepshead Bay 9/11 memorial service.

Gray said “the proudest accomplishment of my life” was getting them to come to the vigil.

She called the U.S. Navy and asked if representatives from the warship could attend — because its bow is made of 7.5 tons of steel salvaged from the ruins of the World Trade Center. The ship had been commissioned in November 2009.

Sheepshead Bay resident Billy Quinn’s got a tattoo with a message. Eagle photo by Mark Davis
Sheepshead Bay resident Billy Quinn’s got a tattoo with a message. Eagle photo by Mark Davis

One day when she was out in the street, her phone rang. The caller was a member of the USS New York’s color guard, telling Gray that the group would be there that year.

“I hung up and started screaming and crying in the middle of Sheepshead Bay Road,” Gray said.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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