AN AMERICAN PORTRAIT: Sept. 11 - July 18
Small town, big heartache
Rebuilding New York City's devastated fire truck fleet fell to a tiny town in Wisconsin.
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, July 18, 2002
(07-18) 04:00 PDT Clintonville, Wis. -- Inside a sprawling, salmon-brick plant at Seagrave Fire Apparatus, Connie Crain's grease-stained hands install pump gauges and control lines on a fire truck headed for New York City.
One of 54 engines ordered urgently by the city's devastated fire department,
the truck is part of a $25 million contract to replace the vehicles destroyed Sept. 11.
"It seems, when you're working on the trucks, that you go back to that horrible day. It's an eerie feeling," said Crain, a 29-year-old mother of three. "You want to get done as fast as you can because you know these trucks are really needed. But you just don't know what will happen next in our country."
Seagrave has delivered fire trucks to the Big Apple since 1918, so New York officials naturally turned to this small Wisconsin city of 4,734 people, about 40 miles west of Green Bay, for help in rebuilding its fleet.
Strong ties have grown over the years between New York's firefighters and the residents of this four-stoplight city, where days are measured in factory shifts, Little League games and dairy milkings. This is a place of cube steak, frozen custard and 75-cent beers. Folks often stop to fish in the Pigeon River, which bisects Main Street, a thoroughfare lined with tall brick buildings and light posts adorned with flags and flower baskets. It's a town with an equal number of bars and churches.
As the city's largest employer, with 360 workers, Seagrave is entwined in Clintonville's identity. There's the annual Fireman's Festival in August, where spectators watch water-hose fights aimed at whiskey barrels. There's the Trucker's mascot for the new $23 million high school -- which 15-year-old Nick Keller jokes will require maps and a global positioning system when his freshman class moves there in December.
The company's CEO, James Green, says Seagrave workers took pride when they heard stories about their trucks -- pulled from ground zero with broken windshields and flattened metal, but still able to pump water. One government official in New York told him that 37 firefighters, ducking for shelter in the sturdy cabs of several huge Seagrave trucks, had survived the falling debris from the collapsing twin towers.
THE MAKING OF A FLEET
Seagrave has revved up its annual 200-truck production of fire trucks to meet the task of rebuilding New York's fleet. Managers and workers are pulling together to donate a $353,000 pumper. Factory hands have given cash and are working through their vacations to complete the order by the end of the year.
"For the folks here, we were given an opportunity to help," Green said. "9/11 had a devastating effect on the plant and on all of us because there is such a personal connection between us and the city of New York. The response was inspirational, and signs went up in the plant, 'Whatever it takes, we'll do it.' "
Green says progress is steady on the replacement trucks, each outfitted with a commemorative
9/11 medallion. When the first handful of replacement trucks left Clintonville on Jan. 22 -- including one with a large mural of a firefighter and an American flag -- crowds cheered them off at 6 a.m.
Clintonville, said Tom McDonald, New York City's assistant commissioner of fleet services, "is small, but big in heart." A frequent visitor to the city and the Seagrave factory, he posted 140 condolence notes from a Clintonville eighth-grade class outside his office door for a while to boost morale.
SEAGRAVE'S RAPID RESPONSE
After the terrorist attack, he said the city's fleet was in "very, very bad shape," and they were forced to use older reserve trucks. The department appealed to Seagrave for a rapid response.
"Now, the trucks are rolling through our doors," McDonald said. "You just don't start delivering trucks at that pace without everyone in the factory stepping up."
Away from the plant -- known locally as "The Drive," a reference to Seagrave's parent company, FWD Corp., the original patent holder of four-wheel- drive technology -- the effects of Sept. 11 linger in Clintonville. Factories cast off workers or closed third shifts, said Mayor Dick Koeppen, 61, and some, already struggling from the recession, buckled after the attacks.
But any remnants of hard feelings from a short 1999 strike at Seagrave quickly dissipated.
"There was no more bickering and pitter patter -- everyone just wanted to do their jobs," Koeppen said. "Before 9/11, New York was so distant from the little bitty Clintonville. But then it was like the big brother in our family was attacked."
On the city's southern outskirts, Randy Erickson milked his Holsteins at 4 a.m. one recent morning, listening to a trivia call-in show on the local radio station, as his wife, Carol, bottle-fed several calves.
One of their sons, Matthew, 22, is a National Guardsman, and the prospect of war is a constant threat. Carol commented on other changes she's seen in her friends: Folks are more cautious about flying, and they listen closely to the news.
"There were a lot of people who were laid off around here because of the trickle down," said Carol, as a cat lapped up spilled milk from the dairy parlor floor. "People aren't spending as much anymore, or they think about it more.'
Across town, LaVerne Keller, 76, was holding a rummage sale. A $150 snow blower in "greate" condition stood in the driveway, and shoppers bought boxes of ribbons, canning items and church hats. Keller recalled how she had been baking an apple pie in her kitchen when she first heard about the attacks.
"It is like when Kennedy was shot -- you know exactly what you were doing," Keller said. "I just couldn't believe it. I said a prayer then -- and I still do for all of them."
That same prayerful sentiment has driven a steady stream of Clintonville citizens to ground zero over the past 10 months to mourn lost friends and relatives.
CLINTONVILLE'S GROUND ZER0
Tending her bar on Main Street, Cindy Beery, 41, has shared friendly banter for more than a decade with many of the New York City firefighters. In February, she went to ground zero to say goodbye to some of the firefighters she had befriended, visited on birthdays and shamelessly plied with her secret 10-shot drink.
"I lost 39 friends in 9/11, and the monsignor told me I needed to go grieve over the coffin," said Beery.
She pointed to the stool where New York City Fire Chief Peter J. Ganci, 54, who frequently joshed with her over frosted mugs of Miller Light and a krautburger, liked to sit -- "the one closest to the beer tap." Ganci, a 33- year veteran, was at ground zero just minutes after the first plane hit the North Tower and perished as he tried to get his men to safety.
Beery is a prankster who mercilessly switches off lights in the men's bathroom with controls under the curved wooden bar. Tired of painting the wall above the urinal, she installed a headrest -- and occasionally inks it fire- engine red -- to tag the foreheads of unwitting visitors who lean against it for support.
DONATIONS TO THE BAR
As word spread of her connection with the firefighters' families, letters with donations started to arrive at her vintage bar. The total eventually reached about $2,000.
"When I called New York and talked with the firefighters and their families,
I tried to be their support block. When I was at the bar, I tried to be strong," Beery said. "But one day, the day that (New York Gov. Rudolph) Giuliani spoke, I just locked myself in my house and bawled."
Another who made the trip to New York is Joel Ratlaff, 52, who on a recent day sat outside the Clintonville Lanes bowling alley. Ratlaff said his niece had died on the 103rd floor of the South Tower on Sept. 11, about the same time that his brother was loading windshields at the Drive.
The men and women "in this town are putting the fire trucks together, and I know that with every bolt they put in, they feel the pain," said Ratlaff, drawing on his Camel Light. "It is something, how many people are traveling to find out about Sept. 11. This is something that just won't die."