The family was on vacation at Cape Cod years ago when one night after going to an amusement park, they noticed some smoke in the air high above some trees.
The family followed the smoke and eventually found a house on fire with smoke pouring out of the second story. Neighbors were on the front lawn yelling that kids are often left home at the burning house and they might be inside. No firefighters were at the house yet.
Or rather, no local firefighters were at the house yet. Harry Wanamaker Jr., an FDNY lieutenant who also volunteered for nearly 50 years with the Nyack Fire Department with Empire Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1, ran into the burning house. While his children knew what he did, for the first time in their lives, they got to actually see him in action.
“Dad jumped out of the car and ran into the house wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. We were little kids and watched from the car and held our breath,” said Gail Van Dyck, Wanamaker’s daughter. “Thankfully, no one was in the house, but taht five minutes dad was inside with no gear was intense for us. It was the first time we really had seen him in action. It opened us up to what he did everyday that he went to work.”
Van Dyck retold that story Saturday afternoon at the Upper Nyack firehouse, where a plaque was dedicated in her father’s honor.
Wanamaker died July 20, 2010, of cancer related to illness he developed from working at ground zero after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Lynne Wanamaker, Harry’s wife of 43 years, remembered that night at Cape Cod and that it was very late at night and it was so dark they couldn’t see really what was going on. While Lynne Wanamaker didn’t speak Saturday during the ceremony, afterwards she said she it meant a lot to the family for the fire department to honor her husband.
“It’s amazing. They’re a real family, they look out for each other,” she said. “They’ve been supportive since Harry passed. I’m just blown away at the scope of the ceremony.”
The ceremony opened with bagpipe players walking toward the firehouse on a small section of North Broadway that was blocked off in front of the firehouse for the ceremony. They were followed by more than 50 firefighters and veterans, who stood behind a podium while friends, colleagues and relatives spoke about Harry Wanamaker Jr.
His cousin, Paul Wanamaker, said when he was thinking about Harry, a number of words came to mind, such as dedication, toughness, respect and compassion. Paul Wanamaker said his cousin was dedicated to his family and his job, and that Harry was also as “tough as nails, but as kind as could be on the inside.”
Paul Wanamaker also remembered how after the attacks on Sept. 11, Harry Wanamaker Jr. went right to World Trade Center and stayed there for three days helping out.
David Gottlieb, president of Empire Hook & Ladder, said he hopes that politicians will work together to get better help to those who went to the site of the Sept. 11 attacks and tried to help in the aftermath.
“I hope that Harry’s suffering does not happen to anyone else,” he said. “No one should go through this.”
During the ceremony, retired FDNY member Michael Finer read a quote attributed to Edward Croker, a former FDNY chief, that Finer thought summed up Wanamaker perfectly.
"I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which the fireman has to do believe that his is a noble calling. Our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrifice."
Note: Attached to this article are also pictures from a ceremony honoring Harry Wanamaker Jr. by the FDNY that were submitted to Patch by the Empire Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1.