Elgin firefighter restores old firetruck as a gift for NYC colleagues
When Elgin firefighter John Tobin noticed an old New York Fire Department firetruck sitting in a junkyard in New London, Wis., he knew he could transform it into something special.
For the past few months -- with help from friends, local companies and fellow firefighters -- Tobin has restored the front section (known as the "nose") of the firetruck.
He had it professionally repainted, got its lights and siren to work again, and made it into a special keepsake for the New York Fire Department firehouse in Queens where it had been used.
On the back, Tobin signed his name and wrote the Winston Churchill quote: "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you will see."
His labor of love was loaded onto a New York-bound truck Wednesday so it will arrive in time for the Sept. 11 10-year anniversary memorials.
"I want to honor those in New York. They're our brothers out there. They've gone through a lot," said Tobin, who estimates he spent 300 hours on the project. "(The restoration) is a lot of work, but it turns into something pretty special."
Tobin was one of the four Elgin firefighters -- and dozens of suburban firefighters -- who worked at ground zero after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and helped dig through the rubble in search of human remains.
Tobin's empathy for the New York firefighters was only part of his motivation for this renovation project, however. He's also doing it to work through the lingering pain he has from a fatal fire he witnessed in Palatine almost 40 years ago.
In 1973, Tobin saw the Ben Franklin store burned down, killing three firefighters whom he described as his "childhood idols." A high school student at the time, he remembers snapping photos of the fire scene, some of which he plans to use in a future book on the subject. His father was a former Palatine fire chief.
"I'm doing it for my own therapy," Tobin said. "We lost three out here in Palatine. I can't imagine 343 (firefighters, as New York did on Sept. 11)."
This is Tobin's second restoration gift to the New York Fire Department. He did a similar one in 2004. Both projects involved blow torching off the front of the abandoned firetruck, finding firetruck specialty stores to donate materials and services (or sell them at cost), and collecting donations from friends and local businesses to fund the project.
Tobin also made one for himself, with the front of another abandoned truck. It's in the basement of his West Dundee home, serving as the centerpiece of his firefighting memorabilia collection.
New York firefighter Louis Nicolisi, who works in the Queens firehouse where Tobin's project is headed, said they plan to use it as a display piece in the TV room, next to other historic items they've collected over the years.
"The guys are excited that some of our history is coming back," Nicolisi said. "It's fabulous what John's done. He's definitely a man with a big heart. As we get farther and farther away from 9/11, it's a touching thing to see that another brother, halfway across the country, thinks about us enough to remember everyone who lost their lives on 9/11."