As the casket was carried out of the church, a group of New Orleans firefighters wearing dress blues snapped to attention and saluted, choking back tears.
Gerry Crimmins, 51, was a New Yorker who came to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and managed to help rebuild 11 of the 22 firehouses damaged in the storm while bureacrats dithered.
He died Oct. 21 of liver cancer.
“Gerry became one of us,” said NOFD Assistant Superintendent Timothy McConnell, one of several local firefighters who flew to New York City to pay tribute. “I don’t know how we could have kept this department together morale-wise if our guys were still working out of trailers.”
Crimmins, with his bald head and stocky frame, committed himself to New Orleans in the fall of 2006 after visiting his son, who studied at Loyola University. The devastation he saw stunned him. He flew back home and resolved to repair the wreckage with the skills he learned as a union carpenter and carpentry instructor.
Moved to volunteer
He learned that a firefighter foundation started by “Rescue Me” star Denis Leary had donated more than a dozen aluminum rescue boats to the NOFD, which had relied the personal boats of firefighters to rescue flood victims. Moved, Crimmins fired off an e-mail message to Leary’s foundation and offered his expertise and that of his union for any potential construction efforts.
Angela Coyle, who managed projects for the actor’s foundation, received Crimmins’ message and immediately phoned him. Start recruiting volunteers, she told him, because the foundation wants to rebuild the city’s damaged firehouses.
Crimmins solicited tools, drywall, cabinets and other supplies from vendors across the country. Then he rounded up 200 co-workers and students, as well as union carpenters in Louisiana, willing to donate their time. During the next couple of years, Crimmins flew to New Orleans 24 times to hammer, nail and drill alongside the volunteers.
As the hardest-hit firehouses were fixed, firefighters moved out of their temporary trailers. They responded to emergencies twice as fast. Residents were safer.
“Gerry had an energy ... that charmed you,” said Chuck Brokmeier, a retired NOFD captain who volunteered to work at many of the houses. “If there was good in you somewhere, he brought it out.”
The months just before and after the completion of the Leary Foundation project in August 2009 were among the happiest for Crimmins. He formed close friendships with McConnell and Brokmeier, who helped him manage the carpentry mission. His sons, Dereck and Austin, were excelling in college. He had fallen in love with Coyle, the project manager for the Leary Foundation. The two were engaged.
The couple even founded a charity-minded corporation in New York and dreamed about retrofitting the homes of paralyzed military veterans with wheelchair ramps, shorter counter tops, wider doorways and modified bathrooms.
In November 2009, while the couple was preparing for their wedding, Crimmins scheduled a medical check-up. Doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in his liver.
Surgeons removed Crimmins’ liver. He underwent three courses of chemotherapy and two courses of radiation treatment, but nothing worked. The disease spread to Crimmins’ kidneys, his lungs and his bones.
But “he was not done with New Orleans,” Coyle said. “Not at all.”
One more for New Orleans
As the end neared, Crimmins called McConnell and Brokmeier and asked them to find a children’s play spot that needed fixing.
The pair told Crimmins that Odile Davis Playground in the Desire area needed help badly. Crimmins, though weakened, recruited students and co-workers and flew them to New Orleans.
The carpenters put up new batting cages, new awnings and new bleachers, and renovated the bathrooms, during one week in May. The next time McConnell called Crimmins, Crimmins said, “So, what next?”
McConnell and Brokmeier visited Crimmins in New York twice during his illness to support him, but Crimmins died before they could launch another project.
Brokmeier and McConnell returned from Crimmins’ funeral early Wednesday. Sitting in an office at NOFD headquarters, the pair vowed to regularly lead volunteer restorations of playgrounds and blighted homes “to keep his spirit alive.”
Coyle, speaking by phone from New York, echoed their promise. She intends to keep running the corporation she and her fiance founded.
“Gerard had so much more he wanted to accomplish,” she said. “We will accomplish it for him.”