Originally created 05/11/02

New York's bravest unwind with island volunteers' help

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - Allison Hands can't wait to get home to her friends to brag about her vacation. After all, it's doubtful any of them can top her story.

"I touched a pig. Then I ate some of it. I liked it," the 7-year-old said, smiling shyly.

The pig was the main course of a barbecue held this week for the 200 New York City firefighters and their families enjoying an all-expenses-paid vacation on Hilton Head Island. It was Allison's first trip to Hilton Head Island and her first Southern pig roast.

The young Queens native also saw her first live starfish, her first dolphins, her first jellyfish. She rode bikes every day, nearly all day. She swam in a pool. She walked on the beach. She was almost breathless just thinking about it all.

Her parents are breathless, too, with shock that people they don't know could be so kind to them.

Joe and Eileen Hands said they could not adequately describe their feelings after a week of pampering by Mr. Hands' counterparts at the Hilton Head Island fire department and hundreds of other volunteers.

Organizers credit 1,000 people with helping out.

Since May 4, the Handses have stayed in a donated waterfront rental house in Land's End in Sea Pines. Bags of donated groceries and beach toys awaited them in the kitchen. Bikes sat out front. Their evenings were filled with a Lowcountry boil and pig roast. A dispatcher and a local firefighter's wife offered to baby-sit for them.

"This is real Southern hospitality," Mrs. Hands said.

The firefighters' trip began taking shape Sept. 13, just two days after the World Trade Center was hit by hijacked airliners and collapsed, killing hundreds of firefighters and leaving the city - and the country - in shock.

Frank Bensieck just wanted to do something. A Hilton Head Island furniture store manager, Mr. Bensieck said he thought that maybe, someday after the shock wore off a bit, he'd invite a firefighter to come down and stay for free in a rental house he owned in Sea Pines.

"I felt those people were going to need some kind of escape," he said.

He called his friend Nancy Presley to see what she thought. She promptly offered her rental house, too. From there, the idea grew.

Within weeks, they had 200 rental homes ready for New York guests. Homeowners as far away as Australia and Egypt offered their Hilton Head Island properties for the cause.

"The response has just been overwhelming from the beginning of this thing," Mr. Ben-sieck said.

Retired New York firefighter-turned-counselor Bob Broderick spent Thursday afternoon sipping a beer at the Salty Dog Cafe, soaking up some sun and relaxing hard, doing what he thinks all New York firefighters should do.

"This was very needed," he said. "For the last eight months, we've consistently lived the World Trade Center. We can't get away from it. People are still working down there, they're still identifying bodies, they're still attending memorial services.

"It's been taking its toll, slowly but surely. For us to get away from the World Trade Center, to come down here, to get our batteries recharged, it's really appreciated. The whole idea has been to enjoy the peace and quiet, to sit and relax, to let all the bad stuff drain out."


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