Retired firefighter Michael O'Connell's social media campaign to retrieve his stolen FDNY helmet has gotten him the next best thing -- two replicas thanks to some good Samaritans.
"There are still amazing people in this world!," O'Connell said.
O'Connell, 39, recently turned to Facebook to track down the significant memento that he wore at Ground Zero following 9/11 and hoped to leave to his three children.
What came back instead were two painstakingly created replica helmets from good Samaritans hoping to soothe the sting of his loss and an avalanche of human kindness and compassion.
"I'm taking the good out of this story, not the bad," said O'Connell, who was forced to retire from the FDNY after being diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that attacks the lungs and lymphatic system, in 2007. "We live in an amazing world. So many people are willing to help. I hope people recognize this more than all the hate out there," he said.
The original helmet was swiped from O'Connell's Westbury, L.I. home in 2012
A Facebook post featuring O'Connell's son, Aidan, wearing the helmet prior to the theft, was shared more than 500,000 times and viewed 25 million times by people, many of whom vowed to help him in his search.
Among those who saw it and were prompted to respond were John Watts, of Mineola, who created an iron sculpture topped by a replica of the lost helmet. Eric Moran, 33, a firefighter with Local 2616 of the Pleasantville, New Jersey, Fire Department and a helmet restoration hobbyist, crafted and sent a stunning and beautifully wrought replica of O'Connell's missing headpiece.
Moran was moved to discover that O'Connell, now suffering a disease thought to be connected to his service at Ground Zero, no longer had the helmet he intended as a family heirloom.
"He's endured enough," Moran said.. "He was a probie faced with the biggest job in the history of the FDNY, and forced to retire from a job he loves ... I wanted him to have something to pass on to his kids," said Moran, who was a probie in New Jersey at the time of the 9/11 attacks. .
As a fellow firefighter, Moran, who lives in Mays Landing, New Jersey, understood intuitively why the theft rankled so deeply.
"The helmet is part of our battle attire," and tremendously symbolic, Moran explained.
Moran keeps the funeral cards of dead friends in the lining of his helmet; others tuck rosaries and snapshots of family members into theirs. Moran bought a Morning Pride fiberglass helmet and set about to customizing it to resemble O'Connell's original. "The most interesting part was trying to redo the shield," with O'Connell's Ladder Company (142, from South Ozone Park) and badge number (4073), he recalled.
Watts' sculptural tribute also touched O'Connell: The two men did not know each other, but through talking discovered that Watts' father, a retired FDNY captain, had coached O'Connell in baseball when he was a little boy growing up in Williston Park, LI. "Another amazing act of generosity: The story just keeps building!" said O'Connell. Firefighting "is a brotherhood, is what it is: Everyone understands the concept. This all means so much to me and my family."
O'Connell has saved and documented all the acts of generosity that occurred as a result of his socialized search and this archive, he augered, may make the best family heirloom of all. "I've saved every news clipping to teach my children that this is what life is about: It's about us taking care of one another," O'Connell said.
"We took a tragedy and flipped it!" Moran said.
Still, O'Connell thinks finding his original helmet, which disappeared along with other FDNY memorabilia and family treasures in the burglary, "is just a matter of time."