When Gerald “Jerry” Sanford returned to his old stomping grounds in New York on Sept. 10, 2001, he had a simple mission – to reunite an antique leather fire helmet he had discovered with the Bronx firehouse from which it originated. But the very next day, the unthinkable happened. The Twin Towers were struck by hijacked planes, killing thousands of people and hundreds of firefighters, including many who had attended the helmet presentation ceremony the day prior.
At that time, Sanford had long been retired after a 29-year career with the FDNY. He had relocated to Naples, Fla., and was working for the North Naples Fire Control and Rescue District, where he found the antique leather helmet. As the terrorist attacks unfolded, Sanford and his traveling companions were on their way back to Florida. After landing for a plane change in Pittsburgh, he saw the horrific events unfolding live on the televisions in the airport. Sanford eventually made it home, but he quickly turned heel and headed back to New York to aid the city in its time of need.
He volunteered to serve the FDNY in one of his former roles as press secretary. With the city in ruins and the fire department in disarray after losing 343 brave firefighters, Sanford got to work on the grim tasks of planning and attending funerals of his friends and brothers while also trying to organize the chaos.
In the process, Sanford also helped some of the firefighters to share their stories of bravery with the public. This included arranging an on-camera meet and greet with fire Captain Jay Jonas and President George W. Bush after Jonas famously helped an injured elderly woman down the stairs and then miraculously survived in what remained of the stairwell when the tower collapsed. Jonas and the woman were eventually rescued together from the wreckage, and their story was dubbed the “Miracle of Stairwell B.
Decades later, the rubble has cleared, and Sanford is still working hard to keep the memories of those who died in 9/11 alive. Sanford and his partner Chris Griffith co-authored their book, “It Started with a Helmet: A Retired Firefighter’s Return to New York City the Day Before 9/11,” in which Sanford shares his true account of volunteering with the FDNY during the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. He also reflects on his earlier years working for the NYPD and his lengthy career with the FDNY, including his time as their press secretary that had him working alongside major New York political figures such as Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Mayor David Dinkins.
“It Started with a Helmet” is a powerful memoir that twines Sanford’s rare ground-level perspective with important historical information that serves to educate the public and keep those who tragically lost their lives in the minds of generations to come. Sanford’s book also shares his experience battling lung cancer – an aftereffect many surviving 9/11 first responders have battled – as well as his continuing work to honor those who died by helping to establish the Freedom Memorial in Naples, Fla.
About the Authors
Gerald “Jerry” Sanford is a retired FDNY firefighter. After serving 29 years with the FDNY, he then served 17 years with the North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District as their public information officer and retired for a second time. Sanford then decided to share his remarkable story about September 11th and how the two fire departments were connected by an antique leather helmet. Chris Griffith is a real estate agent turned writer from Bonita Springs, Fla. Griffith and Sanford met while volunteering for veterans’ organizations in the Southwest Florida area. Having written real estate columns for a variety of newspaper and magazine publications, Griffith graduated to books so that she could document and share Sanford’s remarkable story about September 11th and the helmet. They reside together in Naples, Fla.