Photo Courtesy of Andy Swift
The 1880s-era hose wagon that Firefly Restorations refurbished for the FDNY to use as a funeral caisson for fallen firefighters.
The 1880s-era hose wagon that Firefly Restorations refurbished for the FDNY to use as a funeral caisson for fallen firefighters. Photo Courtesy of Andy Swift
Andy Swift says it takes about two years to fully complete a project.
Andy Swift says it takes about two years to fully complete a project. Coburn Dukehart/NPR
A plaque hanging on the wall at Firefly Restorations commemorates Swift's service to the FDNY after Sept. 11.
A plaque hanging on the wall at Firefly Restorations commemorates Swift's service to the FDNY after Sept. 11. Coburn Dukehart/NPR
Andy Swift has been restoring antique fire engines for more than 20 years.
But seven years ago one piece became not just a labor of love but also a way to heal after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Swift's company, Firefly Restorations in Hope, Maine, is one of only a handful of businesses that restore fire apparatus from as far back as the 1800s. The 55-year-old Swift works with a team in his shop, as well as various artists — a gold-leaf artist, an upholsterer, and a machinist — to bring the vintage pieces back to their original condition.
His company usually refinishes pieces for private companies or clients; he says it takes about two years to fully complete a project.
Swift says he has always been passionate about fire engines. He worked as a professional fireman for four years in Alaska and a volunteer fireman in Maine for more than 10 years. He has visited firehouses around the country, and he thinks he owns every book about fire engines ever written: "I'm just kind of immersed in this world of fire," he says.
That world is so ingrained, that he says the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were emotionally devastating.
"When you're a fireman, you have a firefighter's heart," he says.
Reaching Out To FDNY
Swift's first instinct was to go to New York City, but he stayed back because he knew so many others were rushing in.
Desperate to help, he was restless and unable to sleep, but a few days after Sept. 11 he realized the solution was to do what he knew best: restore fire engines.
Through a business contact, Swift made an offer to the New York City Fire Department: Provide any firetruck it wanted restored, and he would work on it free. Soon after, he traveled to New York City with his son David, then 14, and fellow restoration expert Ken Soderbeck, to meet with officials there.
In November 2001 the FDNY delivered a 19th century hose wagon to Swift's workshop in Maine. The department wanted it restored for use as a funeral caisson for fallen firefighters.
'A Healing Process'
To raise money for the project, Swift contacted the Maine State Federation of Firefighters to help gather donations for materials. He said he had an offer from a private individual to pay for the whole restoration, but Swift wanted the money to come from firefighters instead.
Swift and Soderbeck spearheaded the project, which took more than 2,500 hours of labor, including days of research on the original design and print scheme. Swift made no profit from the project. "I wanted it to hurt, and it did," he says.
Once the bodywork was finished, the wagon was moved to Soderbeck's shop in Jackson, Mich., to be detailed in gold leaf and period artwork.
Six months later, the restored truck was presented to the FDNY at the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head, Maine. It then was taken to New York City for a memorial service for fallen firefighters held at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 12, 2002. The ceremony mourned 356 firefighters, including 343 killed on Sept. 11.
"The way I felt at that memorial service was just very overwhelming," Swift says. "It was probably one of the most moving things that I've been involved with. I think it was a healing process, and I think it was important for me to go through. You know, I was brokenhearted like many, many other people were, and I just thought it was part of the stage of healing."
Seven years later, Swift still speaks of the project with pride, although he is quick to point out that he could have never done it alone.
"What Firefly Restoration consists of is a madman at the wheel," he says. "Plus a lot of very talented artisans who have their home in Maine."