A Cuban immigrant, who had never even visited a fire station before 9/11, led the campaign to rename three streets
In the summer of 2009, Josie Sanfeliu filled her bike basket with petition papers, strapped on her bike helmet, and rode from her home in Park Slope, past the Gowanus Canal and under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to a series of firehouses in Red Hook. It was a 15-minute trip that she had made many times since September 11, 2001, and would make a hundred more times over the next two years.
Sanfeliu did not personally know any firefighters who died on 9/11 in the World Trade Center towers. In fact, she had never been to a firehouse or spoken with a firefighter, but that all changed after the terrorist attacks. In the following years, she devoted herself to renaming three streets in Red Hook after local firefighters who had died in the Twin Towers.
“I wanted to get the streets named by the 10th year anniversary of 9/11,” Sanfeliu said. “On 9/12 we all said ‘Never forget,’ and this is how you do it.”
The devastating events of September 11 prodded individuals who had no personal ties to the victims of the attacks to rethink their roles as citizens and to ask themselves what they could do to help. Some people dusted off their American flags, and others, such as Sanfeliu, did more. She wanted to preserve the memories of the firefighters who gave their lives to save others.
“She is the ideal citizen,” said Sally Regenhard, whose son was memorialized by Sanfeliu’s efforts, “She is concerned about things that a citizen should be.”
By June 2011, three streets in Red Hook received new names, because of Sanfeliu. Across the street from Engine 279/Ladder 131, located on Lorraine Street, was “Red Hook Heroes Run,” which honored all five firefighters from the company who died on 9/11. Sanfeliu and other firefighters came up with the name together. A “run” refers to pre-automobile days when firefighters would literally run to fires.
On the opposite corner, the street was named “FF Ronnie L. Henderson Way,” in honor of one of those five firefighters, who did not have another memorial devoted to him in another part of the city.
At nearby Engine 202/Ladder 101 on Richards Street was “Seven in Heaven Way,” which honored all seven of the firefighters from Ladder 101 who died on 9/11.
The last name drew controversy from some atheists who threatened to sue the city, because they believed that the street sign violated the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. Nothing, however, has transpired. Sanfeliu and Captain Mike Kendall of Ladder 101 insist the phrase is one that other firefighters and the families used to refer to the seven victims.
Harry Gillan, a retired firefighter at Engine 279, knew the firefighters who died on 9/11. He had talked about naming a street in honor of those who died, but was daunted by the time it required. “No one took the bull by the horns,” he said, “Thank God, Josie did it. We were very grateful she did.” Regenhard, whose son started at Ladder 131 six weeks before he died in the attacks, said, “Josie’s efforts to honor them are wonderful, because no one was really doing anything.”
Sanfeliu, 62, emigrated from pre-Castro Cuba when she was six years old, and grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in its pre-gentrified era as the daughter of an auto mechanic and a seamstress. As a young girl living on Amsterdam Avenue, Sanfeliu heard sirens from a local firehouse. “I always felt when I heard them that help is on the way,” she said. In 1992 she moved to Brooklyn with her then-husband. She remembers a fire a few blocks away, where a firefighter pulled a couple of husky Rottweiler dogs from a burning house. One was dead. At that time, she was too timid to talk to the firefighter.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Sanfeliu was tuned into a radio show that implored listeners to turn on their televisions. She saw a plane crash into one of the Twin Towers, and like many others she thought it was a horrendous accident. She continued with her day, which was to vote for the city’s primary elections. She went to the subway, but while on the open-air platform at Smith Street in Brooklyn, people gasped at the view of Lower Manhattan: now both towers emitted huge clouds of dark smoke. “It’s concrete!” someone cried. Ash started to fall around them. A man next to her caught a charred sheet of paper from the sky, which read “Federal Trust.” It came from one of the Twin Towers.
The death toll increased by the hour, and ultimately among the dead were 343 fire fighters. Sanfeliu remembered Mayor Giuliani’s request for New Yorkers to attend firefighter funerals so the ceremonies would not be barren. Immediately after 9/11, Gillan remembers that many civilians came to the firehouses to help, but he said, “Three to four weeks after 9/11 people dropped off, but Josie still made her presence.”
There were many local firehouses, but Sanfeliu chose to attend the memorials of firefighters at Engine 279/Ladder 131 and Engine 202/Ladder 101 in Red Hook, because they were in industrial areas with few residents. She took this as an opportunity to give them the appreciation she imagined other firehouses in more residential areas enjoyed.
Getting to know firefighters is not easy, because they are reluctant to speak about their work. “She is a remarkable woman,” said Holly Fuchs, an activist for New York City firefighters. “In order to do anything with firefighters is hard because they have to know and respect you. She does have that rapport.” Connie Lesold, another activist, said of Sanfeliu, “They are always glad to see her. They invited her in like she’s one of their own. One of their family.” Sometimes it took months for firefighters to open up to Sanfeliu, but once they did she began to understand their grief on a deeper level, and with each story, she said, “I cried for weeks.”
As the firefighters eventually warmed up to her, Sanfeliu found ways to offer her support. At first, she brought them homemade scones with pine nuts and turbinado sugar. “There was no neighborhood association to bring them cake,” she said. Eventually, she got more involved with politics and started to protest the closing of fire houses. She collected photos from local fires, and brought them to Community Board meetings as evidence that firehouses need to remain open.
While an undergraduate at City College, Sanfeliu had studied cultural anthropology, which she credits with helping her appreciate the complexity of firefighter society. She came to understand their ranks, activities, and gear as few outsiders do. She felt in awe of their ability to put their lives on the line for citizens no matter their race, ethnicity, or socio-economic background. “They don’t ask any questions from us,” she said. “They don’t ask for an ID. They value everybody where other agencies or groups might not.”
Sanfeliu said the firefighters’ ethos of self-sacrifice inspired her to memorialize those who gave their lives on 9/11. “Street naming is important,” she said, “because firehouses close, and all of the visible plaques and memorials are taken down.”
In 2008, Sanfeliu got the go-ahead from firefighters and their families to begin the arduous process of street-naming. But Sanfeliu said that the prospect of the bureaucracy did not stop her, explaining, “My family does not understand not doing something.”
The following summer of 2009 on weekend afternoons, she collected signatures from local residents approving the street names. On weekdays after work as a database manager at a settlement house in the Lower East Side, she put together paperwork for the street name applications, each of which required an essay justifying the new name, biographies of the fallen, endorsements from firefighters, and signatures from locals.
She spent most of 2010 watching her petition work its way from the local Transportation Committee, through the Community Board and then the City Council, all the way to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s desk. Although she did not need to, she showed up at each meeting with a group of activists and firefighters whom she had organized in advance. She thought their presence would increase her odds. On December 20, 2010, Sanfeliu, four firefighters and two activists attended the formal City Hall ceremony.
Those who know Sanfeliu are not surprised she saw it through. “She’s very determined,” said Lesold, “She doesn’t let anyone or anything stop her.” Captain Kendall said about her willpower, “The lady is a bulldog.” Regenhard, who has dealt with public committees for years for other projects said, “I know how arduous is the process of trying to get something done. It’s just amazing that she devoted so much of her personal time to it.”
Now that Sanfeliu successfully co-named the three streets, she is not sure precisely what her next step will be, but she said she will continue with her activism. “I am bilingual,” she said, “and I don’t understand ‘no’ in either language.”