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Regatta to honor fallen firefighter Patrick O'Keefe

Patrick O'Keefe, a New York City fireman from

Patrick O'Keefe, a New York City fireman from Oakdale, was killed during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. (Aug. 4, 2013) Credit: John Roca

The Spirit Rider Regatta honoring an FDNY firefighter from Oakdale killed at the north tower on 9/11 will be held Saturday and Sunday off the Long Beach barrier island.

"The regatta is an outlet that not only gave us a way to grieve, but also to heal," said Noreen Costello, the sister of Patrick J. O'Keefe, 44, of Rescue Company No. 1. She started the O'Keefe Foundation in his memory in 2004. It sponsors the sailboat race.

O'Keefe joined the FDNY in mid-1981 and was in Ladder 35-Engine 40. In 1991, because of his skills as a scuba diver and carpenter, Costello said, he was invited into the Manhattan rescue company.

"From champion of the underdog on the playgrounds of his youth to carpenter for hurricane victims in the Dominican Republic, Patrick never missed an opportunity to help others," said Costello, of Lynbrook.

The race and related events help finance college scholarships, the top one of $2,000 for each of four years to a high school senior whose parent was killed by violence or an immigrant senior who is a U.S. citizen.

This year's winner was Thomas Kelly, now 18, an Oyster Bay High School graduate set to study physical therapy at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

"My guidance counselor had suggested I apply, but I didn't really think I'd get it," he said.

In his 1,000-word essay, a requirement, he compared O'Keefe to his father, Joseph, who he said had lived his dream as a bond broker, just as O'Keefe had lived his, becoming a firefighter. "They were both great guys," he said. "I hope to live my dream too."

Coincidentally, Kelly's father, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee, died in the same tower on the same day as O'Keefe.

"The scholarship makes us feel a little closer to our brother. We are trying to turn a negative into a positive by giving a hand up to young people in need of help," said Costello, a former Long Beach deputy corporation counsel.

She said she sends out 365 letters a year to Long Island and New York City schools about the grants, and this year's 78 applicants more than doubled those for any previous year.

O'Keefe also loved to sail, and when two immigrants with whom he had worked on a carpentry job said they had never been on the ocean, "He took them out for a day of sailing," she said.

His regatta Saturday will host about 24 boats, expected to include teams from the Army, Navy and Merchant Marine academies, and Fordham and Georgetown universities.

The race is to start near National Boulevard in Long Beach, go west to the Rockaways and loop around to Lido and return to the starting point.

"Of course, professionals set the actual course the night before, and that depends on a lot of things, including what the seas are like," Costello said.

Other organizations have partnered with the foundation in the race, and present trophies, including the St. Brendan the Navigator trophy from the Long Beach chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Still others are offering scholarships, including the John C. McLaughlin Textbook Assistance Grant of $1,000 and the Staff Sgt. Raleigh Snell Assistance Grant of $1,000, each from a retired FDNY member.

"There are really some heart-wrenching stories from the applicants," said Long Beach immigration lawyer Francis McQuade, a member of the foundation team that helps choose the winners.

So far, there have been 22 winners.

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