Shields of fallen heroes travel to nation’s capital


BY Aline Reynolds

Robert B. Helmke was suddenly diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in 2005. His illness didn’t arise from alcohol or smoking, but from inhaling the toxic fumes at Ground Zero. Helmke, a New York Police Department officer, spent six months securing the area day and night following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He died at age 43 in 2007.

“From the beginning, they told us that any treatment and operations he would get would not save his life, they would only help extend his life,” said Robert’s wife, Greta Helmke. “I saw him waste away from 140 pounds to under 100 pounds.”

The New York City Police Museum is commemorating Robert’s life and those of 28 other police officers in an upcoming exhibit in Washington, D.C., following U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s support and last week’s approval of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. Replicas of the officers’ badges will be exhibited from November 29 to December 3 in the second-floor Rotunda room of the Russell Senate office building. The Police Museum’s executive director, Julie Bose, hopes to eventually showcase the shields in other venues around the country.

“It’s amazing we’re going to be able to share these with the public,” Bose said while admiring the glass-cased shields now stored in the museum’s second floor exhibit space.

The case holds metallic plates of police officers, detectives, sergeants, lieutenants, inspectors, and captains on duty in Lower Manhattan post-9/11.

Liz Williams, a Community Board 1 member and vice president of the First Precinct Community Council, conceived of the idea in late September, following reportage artist Aggie Kenny’s exhibit at the Police Museum.

“It just occurred to me one night – James Zadroga is a detective, and I know [Bose] has the Hall of Heroes in the museum,” said Williams. “I thought, there’s gotta be a [James] Zadroga shield.”

The Russell Rotunda exhibit, Bose explained, will draw national attention to the first responders. “This is not a New York issue… it’s a national issue, a national story,” she said, pointing out that many of the U.S. Senators will walk by the shields every day on their way to work.

The Police Museum will host an opening on the first day of the Russell exhibit and expects a good turnout of Senators and family members, including Detective James Zadroga’s father, Joseph Zadroga, as well as N.Y.C. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Ten enlargements of Kenny’s works will also be on display, including her sketches, “Exhausted Workers Resting,” “Firefighters” and “Lunch Line.”

The FealGood Foundation, a nonprofit organization that assists 9/11 first responders and their families, will provide bus transportation for the officers’ family members from New York to D.C. The N.Y.P.D., meanwhile, is expected to transport the shields.

The N.Y.P.D. created the replicas of the original shields, which are kept in the Police Museum’s Hall of Heroes room, specifically for the Russell exhibit. Though they are replicas, they adhere to the same size, shape and design specifications as the original shields, according to the museum’s curator, Joshua Ruff.

Ruff had the portable Plexiglas case custom-designed for the exhibit.

“They won’t let us hang anything on the walls [of the Russell building] — we had to have something that was freestanding,” Bose explained.

Local elected officials and around 80 family members showed up at the Police Museum on November 9 to celebrate the exhibit’s installation.

“The New York City Police Museum’s Shields exhibit is a wonderful way to pay tribute to the 29 officers who sacrificed so much for the community in the rescue and recovery effort at the World Trade Center and died of 9/11-related illnesses,” State Senator Daniel Squadron said in a statement. “And it should also serve as a reminder of how important it is for Congress to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would give 9/11 rescue and recovery workers the proper long-term medical care and support they deserve.”

Helmke traveled down to D.C. this Tuesday with another widow, Rita Brophy, to rally for the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which was approved in the House of Representatives on September 29 and now awaits Senate passage.

Brophy also lost her husband, police officer Thomas Brophy, to colon cancer. For six months, Officer Brophy received full exposure to the toxins while spending 12 hours a day performing post-9/11 clean-up without a mask. Her husband, she said, would have wanted her to fight for the protection of health care services for his sick co-workers. The Russell exhibit, she added, “will show these people of the Senate that we don’t want this box to fill up with more shields.”

“I think it’ll make a great impact on the Senate members, and hopefully sway them in supporting the bill,” Helmke echoed. “When you see all those badges together, it really does make a big statement.”