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Storm damage at 9/11 park to be cleaned up in time for service

Lightning downed trees and power lines and destroyed

Lightning downed trees and power lines and destroyed the gazebo in the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park in Nesconset last week. Credit: Newsday/Nicholas Spangler

Lightning downed trees and power lines and destroyed the gazebo in the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park last week, but leaders of the group that cares for the Nesconset site said they would be ready for a scheduled 10 a.m. Sept. 14 memorial service. 

The lightning struck around 9:52 p.m. Aug. 22, park president Judi Simmons said, based on the time clocks stopped in her nearby home. A 120-foot oak toppled, crushing the park’s gazebo and a fence, downing utility lines and bending a memorial sign, she said. Another oak took out three Bartlett pear trees planted around the park’s perimeter, and cleanup has killed much of the park’s grass. John Feal, whose FealGood Foundation helped raise money to build the park, estimated the damage at $20,000 to $30,000. Most of that amount is landscaping damage, which park insurance will not cover, Simmons said. 

 “A piece of my heart lives at that park,” said Simmons, a reading teacher in North Babylon schools whose husband, FDNY firefighter Martin Simmons, died in 2008 of respiratory failure New York City authorities attributed to his work as a first responder. His name is one of more than 1,100 that appear on a memorial wall in the park, which occupies the northeast corner of the intersection of Smithtown Boulevard and Gibbs Pond Road.   

“I was shocked by the extent of the damage,” Simmons said. “My first thought was, ‘How am I going to get this cleaned up by the time of the event?’ ”

Now in its 10th year, the park’s memorial service features a reading of the names of responders who have died in the past year and draws about 1,000 people. Simmons said this year's list includes 160 names. 

Simmons has spent much of the past week in what she called “cleanup mode,” talking with Smithtown officials, Suffolk County Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) and the owners of Barry Brothers Landscaping, a St. James company she said would donate labor for repairs. 

Smithtown Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said town officials would do what they could. “I don’t think there’s a person in Smithtown that’s not eager to help rebuild the gazebo area of the park,” he said in a statement released by his spokeswoman. “The park represents the very best of humanity. We owe it to the keepers of the Responders Remembered Park to help them rebuild.”

Simmons’ plan is to resod the park lawn and add new plantings. Instead of replacing the gazebo, a onetime focal point of the park that Feal said had become a hangout spot for homeless people who patronized nearby convenience stores, workers will build a patio and stone benches around a piece of steel taken from one of the World Trade Center towers and already located at the park.  

In an interview, Feal, a former construction worker, said fellow advocates for 9/11 responders had won a significant victory this summer with passage of federal legislation ensuring that the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund will never run out of money to help those who were injured or developed diseases as a result of their work responding to the nation's deadliest terrorist attack.

Still, he said, it was a shock to drive down Gibbs Pond Road toward the park and see the space where that 120-foot oak once stood. “The skyline of the park changed,” Feal said.

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