IRL: New York Fire Department visits the Speedway

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2002 - American racing hero Eddie Cheever Jr. turned, embraced Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame visitor Robert Portilla and exclaimed, "These guys are true heroes." 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Cheever and...

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2002 - American racing hero Eddie Cheever Jr. turned, embraced Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame visitor Robert Portilla and exclaimed, "These guys are true heroes."

1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Cheever and Speedway Historian Donald Davidson provided three members of the Fire Department of the City of New York with a guided tour Jan. 29 of the Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. The three FDNY members came to Indiana to thank the state for all the support it provided, personnel-wise and financially, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The three members of FDNY Station 57 - Lieutenant Phil Soto, Paramedic Joel Pierce and Emergency Medical Technician Robert Portilla - had been in Indiana for several days, speaking at schools and visiting children at Riley Hospital in Indianapolis and at other children's hospitals in Fort Wayne and Marion.

Rev. Benjamin Santiago and Chaplain Jack Brady of the Madison County Sheriff's Department both had been to Ground Zero in New York and helped make arrangements for the visit when they learned FDNY wanted to come to the Hoosier state and personally thank everyone who had contributed in any way.

"When it all happened, I was more concentrated on what we were going to do," Portilla said of that fateful day 4 ½ months ago.

"And then when everybody began to show up, it was added comfort. I was overwhelmed by that, and I was very moved that you did come, did respond with your finances and your support. And with their cooperation, we were able to work at getting this cleaned up and help as many as we could.

"We wouldn't have been able to do it alone. And it doesn't matter how many departments were in the area, we needed the whole country, and the whole country came by."

Cheever said he was honored to help guide the trio's tour of the museum and describe how a modern race car works. Davidson led them through the impressive display of old race and passenger cars. Later, they took a bus ride around the storied 2.5-mile oval, with Dan Edwards, head of the IMS fire and rescue crew on race, practice and testing days, explaining how quickly the Speedway's fire team responds to accidents.

Soto and his wife were two of the FDNY members who responded when the terrorist-guided airliners crashed into the Twin Towers. Both Soto and his wife were off duty but arrived at Ground Zero and sprang into action a couple minutes after the second tower collapsed.

"We lost a lot of friends, brothers of all departments," Soto said. "And I'll tell you, no matter what department you were working for, we worked together, a common goal. It was fantastic."

Soto then related how there was only one water jug available for drinking early in the aftermath of the tragedy, and it was passed around to all rescue workers.

"We all drank out of that water jug," Soto said. "You know what, it was a great thing. We became a band of brothers there. It was a sight to see, our services working together."

Paramedic Pierce came closest to becoming a victim. He and other fire officials were in a building some 300 feet from one of the toppling towers, and huge panes of glass enclosed the lobby. Fortunately, the pane closest to them held up, but then the firemen had to break it to save some people trapped outside.

"I thought I was going to die," Pierce said. "I was pretty convinced this was going to be it."

Due to the hard work of various emergency personnel, the clearing of the Ground Zero area is far ahead of expectations, Pierce said.

"They thought it was going to be over a year to clean it up, but I've heard predictions maybe the end of April, maybe May," he said. "That's pretty fast, considering."

During the early days of that tough job of recovery and cleanup, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani provided fine leadership, Soto said.

"I think I can speak for all the departments in New York City when I say of Mayor Giuliani, we lived through his strength," Soto said. "And he did a heck of a job, he should be commended, and he's going to be missed in New York City, for sure."

Santiago, a native of Brooklyn, visited Ground Zero twice. It turned out that Station 57 was in his old neighborhood, and Portilla mentioned to him that he and others wanted to come to Indiana and say "thank you."

The visiting firemen ended their Speedway visit by standing on the track's famed "yard of bricks" at the start-finish line, sitting in the track's fire truck and finally taking some laps around the track. Portilla, who has driven karts, was the only one with any racing experience.

This trip was from the heart. They all agreed they hope to return in May for the excitement of the race they've only seen on television.

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Series Charity , IndyCar