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First responders donate gear at Chicago convention

Crews in Ecuador and Peru benefit at event honoring those who died in 2001 attacks

By Denise Linke
Chicago Tribune
Copyright 2007 Chicago Tribune Company

CHICAGO — The top firefighter coat on the heap in Pheasant Run Resort’s convention hall in St. Charles looked like it belonged in the trash. Grime coated the sleeves. Insulation bulged out through rips in the lining. The fabric gave off a faint stench of smoke from dozens of fires.

But it was treasure to Fire Cmdr. Santiago Landazuri of Patricia Pilar in Ecuador.

“When we go to fight fires, we wear our regular clothes — shorts, shirts and sandals. For us, gearing up is tying a wet rag around our faces,” Landazuri said through an interpreter.

Landazuri will receive 10 sets of “turnout gear” — coats, pants, boots, gloves, hoods and helmets — from the 300-plus sets donated by Chicago-area fire departments through the Gear Up Foundation, which held a convention in the west suburban resort during the weekend. That’s enough to outfit every firefighter in his department, which serves a town of 6,000 residents.

The rest of the donated clothing and equipment, about $1 million worth, will go to other poor, small towns in Ecuador and Peru, said convention organizer Joe Cantafio.

Cantafio volunteered to bring the New York foundation’s mission to the Chicago area after his Chicago-based rock band, The 101st Division, performed at fundraisers for public-safety officials injured in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“I have a great love for first-responders,” such as firefighters, emergency medical technicians and police officers, Cantafio said. “I told [Gear Up founder] Vincent Forras that I would take this to the Midwest and show him how much we care about firefighters.”

Forras started Gear Up in 2002 as a “living memorial” to firefighters killed in the attacks. Forras was a volunteer firefighter in upstate New York who was trapped in rubble and injured while conducting search and rescue operations at Ground Zero, according to the foundation’s Web site.

“He fell two stories and couldn’t get out for hours,” Cantafio said. “While he was trapped, he made a promise to God that if he got out alive, he would do something to help his brother firefighters.”

Last weekend’s convention helped not only the 10 South American firefighters who attended, but also about 300 Chicago-area firefighters who brought donated equipment and stayed to participate in classes, said Schaumburg Fire Department Cmdr. Rick Kolomay. Classes taught by Kolomay and New York Fire Department Battalion Chief Don Hayde focused on new developments in search and rescue, as well as firefighter survival.

The South American firefighters took classes in how to use the equipment Gear Up is giving them.

Fire Chief Miguel Delgado of Montecristi, Ecuador, said he hopes the training and equipment his department is getting from Gear Up will help prevent tragedies such as a recent house fire in his town that killed three children while firefighters watched helplessly because they couldn’t get through the flames.

“I think it will save lives because we’ll be able to do what we have to do to rescue people,” Delgado said.

Though Montecristi’s fire department is well-equipped for its region — it has a 45-year-old donated pumper truck — Delgado said he hopes someday to get a donated ambulance and medical training for his staff.

“We are more than an hour away from the nearest hospital. None of us knows how to do CPR,” he said. “My dream is to have an ambulance and the training to use it properly so we can save some of the lives we lose to auto accidents each year.”

Gear Up will hold another Chicago-area convention next year, Cantafio said.