Today is the birthday of Gerard Barbara, FDNY. He was born on March 17, 1948, and would have been 74 years old today. We will never forget the ultimate sacrifice that he made on September 11, 2001.
He loved the simple treasures, and the acts of courage that are anything but simple. He began his days with sunrises, and ended them with jogs at sunset in Clove Lakes Park. His loves were nature, opera, the Beatles and the Yankees. He built an artificial pond in his backyard, a loving family and a successful, honored career with the city Fire Department.
Assistant Deputy Chief Gerard A. Barbara was, by all accounts, a Renaissance man.
"He just wanted to experience everything there was," said his wife of 30 years, the former Joanne Lento. "As much as he could do in a day. We tried things, and we enjoyed them."
The longtime West Brighton resident was a citywide tour commander with the Fire Department, capping a 31-year career that began in Engine Co. 91-2 on 111th Street in Harlem. Along the way, he was the chief of the fire prevention and technical management units, trained in many fields, and was honored again and again.
He was named Man of the Year for 1999 by the Fire Department's Columbia Association, an Italian-American fraternal organization on whose board of directors he had served. In 1980, Chief Barbara was given the Pulaski Association Medal, a medal of honor.
"There were countless amounts of awards," said his son, Paul, 23, a second-year student at the St. George's School of Medicine in Grenada, West Indies. "He has so many medals and awards, and not all of them are from the Fire Department." Chief Barbara prided himself on fire prevention and making sure his comrades were safe on the job. Following a fire in December 1998 at a city-owned senior citizens complex in Starrett City, Brooklyn, which killed three firefighters, he was instrumental in lobbying for a new city law that required sprinkler systems in multiple-family buildings.
"My husband was a fireman, he always wanted to help the men who were on the job," said Mrs. Barbara, who works at Seaview Radiology. "That was his first concern. He felt that the men who go in and risk their lives should be safe doing it. They knew they were risking their lives every time they were going into a building, but he wanted to make it as safe as possible."
Chief Barbara was born in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn and moved to West Brighton in 1972.
He was an electrician in the Navy from 1968 to 1970, serving in the Mediterranean Sea on the aircraft carrier USS Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
He was a skilled craftsman and an expert in stained glass. Five years ago, Chief Barbara built a pond in the family's backyard that is stocked with Japanese koi. Nature -- especially this time of year, when the leaves are changing and the air is ripe for jogging -- was a passion rivaled only by his love for his job and the New York Yankees.
One of Chief Barbara's greatest thrills was being called to inspect Yankee Stadium after a 500-pound piece of concrete fell from the upper deck in April 1998. He sat at the desk of manager Joe Torre and hung out in his favorite team's dugout, and was photographed in all these places.
"I was so amazed at how important he was, that they let him look at the stadium," his son said.
And when the Staten Island Yankees opened their new park in St. George, with its breathtaking view of Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center, it made him proud. "He loved that park, he loved that view," said his daughter, Caren, 25, an assistant treasurer at Commerzbank in the World Financial Center and a part-time student at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business.
Chief Barbara was the kind of dad who brought the camera on every family outing, from their trips to Italy, London, Paris and Mexico, to their short outings. "He just got a camera he could set himself so he didn't have to ask someone to take the picture for us," his daughter said. "He was so excited about that. He kind of chuckled every time we posed for a picture."
On vacation, the Barbara family goes off the beaten path, experiencing the food and the customs of the places they visit to "see how the people there live," his wife said. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, they went whitewater rafting in the Colorado River.
"He didn't just want to go to do the regular tourist thing," his daughter said. Chief Barbara has been described by his family and co-workers as a thinker, a calm and collected supervisor who thrived in situations like the World Trade Center tragedy. His experience and leadership made him an obvious choice to lead the rescue effort inside Tower 2, a duty assigned to him by Chief of Department Peter Ganci Jr. in the minutes after the attack.
"Jerry Barbara, both professionally and personally, was one of the finest people I ever knew," said longtime friend Richard J. Sheirer, the director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. "An absolute class act, a consummate professional whose word was his bond, whose knowledge was his craft.
"He was a guy you always enjoyed being with."
Staten Island Advance, 2001
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