Sea Notes

All that was left was dust: a surfing tribute to firefighters who fell on 9/11

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, firefighter Brennan Savage had finished his shift at Ladder 137 in Southern Queens, the firehouse where he worked as a New York firefighter.
He was thinking about the waves he would ride that day when suddenly he looked up across the bay to see one of the Twin Towers ablaze. When he saw a jetliner hit the second tower he realized he wasn’t going anywhere, except back to work.
Back inside the firehouse Savage and the rest of the fire crew sat in disbelief as the news unfolded: The U.S. was under attack. Within a few hours Brennan and every firefighter in the city was at the World Trade Center. By then both towers had collapsed, and he sifted through the ashes, which were a mixture of the city’s highest structures and the people who had worked in them.
“All that was left was dust; we never even found a trace of DNA of some of the firefighters we knew. Nothing.”
During this interview Savage paused to display a photo of the firefighters lost in the 9/11 blaze. He points out several of his close friends, including Steve Belson, whom he often surfed with at Rockaway Beach, which is located near the firehouse.
“The last words anyone ever heard from Steve were, ‘Chief, I’m on the 70th floor, I’m heading up.’ That was a minute and a half before tower one fell
“I knew at least 50 of the 343 that died that day. Nineteen of them were friends from Rockaway. These were guys I had known since we were kids and most of us had grown up surfing together. If you go to Rockaway today, all you’ll find are the memorials with road signs commemorating fallen firefighters. There’s Steve Belson Road, Walter Hynes Street, and Richie Allan…Richie was brand new, just out of the fire academy. His first job was the World Trade Center.
“The waves had been good the week of Sept. 11, and a lot of the firemen I knew were out surfing. There were at least 10 firefighters out that day. They were called in and went straight to the Twin Towers, and a lot of them didn’t come back. After 9/11 a lot of us dealt with our grief from that day by talking it out and by going surfing. In a way, surfing helped save a lot of us.
“There are thousands of firefighters that surf and we wanted to do something for them on 9/11. I was reading The Coast News a while back, and there was a story about these local surfers Jeff Grygera and his son, Jay who build surfboards. I called up and asked them if they’d donate a surfboard to raffle. Then, when I saw the design of the board they wanted to build, I said, ‘I’m not putting this up for raffle; I’m not even sure I want to put wax on it.’”
Building a surfboard by hand is a tedious task to begin with. Now, add graphics that run the entire length of the board and you’ve really got a challenge. To help solve the problem, Jeff called surfer and graphic artist, Jerry Anderson of Headline Graphics and told him about the project.
According to Anderson, “I envisioned the artwork right away, the stars and stripes with the faces of our fallen firefighters on the white stripes.”
The graphics were completed and the board was built by Jeff and Jay and presented to Brennan on Sept. 1 of this year.
“When I was finishing that board, I would stare at these guy’s faces for a long time. I’m a family man and I realized that nobody was ever going to see these men again. That’s when the loss of 911 began to sink in,” Jeff said.
The surfboard will be part of the commemorative 9/11 ceremony scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum, 910 N. Harbor Drive, alongside Navy Pier.
The board will be displayed on the Midway before being transferred to its permanent home at the San Diego Firehouse Museum.
To learn more, visit the USS Midway website at, contact Jeff or Jay Grygera at Iron Cross Surfboards at (760) 436-1900, or e-mail Brennan Savage at s