For 84 years, the individuals serving in the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department and Ambulance Corps have dropped everything, rushing from cozy beds and dinners with family and friends, to risk their lives for their neighbors.
Last Thursday, those neighbors got a chance to say thank you.
About 250 people flocked to Russo’s on the Bay in Howard Beach to celebrate the anniversary of an institution that residents said has countless times provided rescue and relief for people during some of the worst moments of their lives.
“They’re invaluable,” said Mary Ann Carey, a civic leader from Howard Beach. “I can’t tell you how many times they helped when my husband had heart problems before he died. They must’ve come at least 15 to 20 times when he wasn’t well, and they would take me wherever I asked to go. They were so wonderful with him and made him feel so good.”
Launched as one of the few fire departments in the area when it began, the group has grown to be a flourishing organization with 32 volunteers who say they are proud to serve the area where many of them grew up.
“Having volunteers from this area, it’s a trust and comfort factor,” Chief Joseph Aldana said at the annual dinner, dance and installation of officers. “I’m not just a firefighter walking into someone’s house. I know the neighbors on a first name basis.”
During the event, which is the group’s biggest fundraiser each year, the organization honored Joseph DeCandia Jr., owner of Lenny’s Clam Bar and Roma View, and Jimmy Kolm, who owns Liberty Bell Car Care, for supporting the department.
“They are incredibly important to the department,” Aldana said of DeCandia Jr. and Kolm.
The group also honored three community members who lost their lives because of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks —Battalion Chief Thomas Farino, firefighter Raymond York and the department’s ex-chief Kevin Delano.
One of six sons of a police officer, Farino, who grew up in Ozone Park, died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, along with 342 other firefighters.
York, of Valley Stream, LI, was teaching children about fire safety when he heard the news that New York had been attacked. He immediately jumped on a fire truck that was passing by the area and headed straight for the trade center. He arrived just before the collapse of the second tower.
PS 65 in Howard Beach was renamed for York.
Delano, who served as the chief of the WHBVFD for 12 years, died in 2008 from leukemia, which his family members and doctors have said was due to the more than 40 hours he spent during the rescue efforts at Ground Zero.
The 2001 attacks “silenced the souls of our bravest,” said Mitchell Udowitch, a former chief who emceed Thursday’s event.
Jimmy Sands, a firefighter from Howard Beach who leads the National 9/11 Flag Project, brought to the anniversary dinner a flag that had been found tattered in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Since the flag was discovered, Sands has brought the flag all over the country to be repatched. After being mended by Martin Luther King Jr.’s children, among many others, the final stitch was sewn in Rockaway.
Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Ozone Park) also spoke about the importance of the department.
“My dad’s in the volunteer ambulance corps in Rockaway, and there have been many times that five minutes into dinner, the call goes out and my dad goes running,” Goldfeder said.
Judge Augustus Agate presented the organization with a $1,000 check from the Howard Beach Kiwanis Club.
“There’s no agency better than the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department and Ambulance Corps,” Agate said. “They do tremendous work in our community.”
Victor Rodriguez and Paul Capocasale, of the Ozone Park Kiwanis Club, gave the department a check for $2,500.
“When people who volunteer their time and leave their houses to save lives, those are the good people that make America great,” Capocasale said.