Fairfield Now - Fall 2007
An Outstretched Hand
By Meredith Guinness
On a December day in 2005, Rob Girandola '87 was skimming through an art website when he saw a notice from a small New York City firehouse, Engine 6. The firefighters there hoped to find an artist to create bronze busts of the four men they lost in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Girandola had never worked in bronze. In fact, he hadn't sculpted in 15 years. But something in the note called to the Yardley, Penn., artist. He wrote a response, mentioning that three of his four brothers were in New York City that day and that he understood - if only in a small way - the dread and uncertainty of a moment that united us all.
Six months passed. Girandola put his mind on his work as a color specialist at Estée Lauder. Finally, in June 2006, a member of Engine 6 called. Five years after Lt. Thomas O'Hagan and firefighters Paul Beyer, Thomas Holohan, and William Johnston perished, the House was ready to create a permanent memorial. They would place it where the riding board - the chalkboard listing the current shift detail - hung on a wall near the door. It hadn't been erased since that Sept. 10 overnight.
"Their names were still there, " Girandola says quietly. "This was a big thing, creating a memorial. They spent the first two years looking for those guys."
The firefighters made the call to Girandola, and then contacted those in their "family," the extended circle of parents, spouses, children, and others connected by bonds forged in such dangerous work. The family is especially tight at "6 Engine," which has only one rig and about 60 staffers.
"We're very close," says Arlene Beyer, Paul's wife. "It's hard to let anyone into the firehouse family. But something about Rob's letter touched me, all of us."
Once on board, Girandola went to work on his vision: a stirring bas relief of all four men ascending the stairs inside the tower, where they were last seen alive. Lt. O'Hagan leads the group, with Beyer at the rear, his hand outstretched toward the viewer. Beyer's helmet rests to the side. Over the men's shoulders is a faint vertical rectangle bearing the head of the Tamany tiger, the Engine 6 mascot. In the foreground, Girandola recreated the riding board, which forms a twin to the tower in the rear.
The work is called "We Draw Strength From Each Other," and the name comes from a conversation with Engine 6 Firefighter Billy Green. Green was on duty on Sept. 11 and was climbing the stairs with the four others more than 30 flights up when they stopped to rest. They were pushing for the 44th floor when the call to evacuate came. Green, who had been on a lower floor than the others, made it out of the building just as it collapsed, enveloping him in thick smoke and ash. Girandola knew that speaking with Green would imbue his work with the realism of the moment he wanted to capture. He also knew it would be immensely difficult for Green to remember those hours.
Girandola's mentor, 87-year-old sculptor Laszlo Ispanky (left), added a lifeline to the palm of firefighter Paul Beyer, whose extended hand also includes the thumbprints of the two children he left behind. Girandola's sensitivity and compassion also found their way into his work as he sculpted the faces of firefighter Tom Holohan (center) and Lt. Thomas O'Hagan (right).
"A memorial is a really tough thing to do. To get it right," says Terry Sullivan '89, who met Girandola through the University Glee Club and has remained his friend. After leaving Fairfield, the two both earned their graduate art degrees - Girandola an M.F.A. at Columbia, Sullivan an M.A. from New York University. Girandola shared his vision for the firehouse piece through sketches they'd e-mail back and forth.
"Paint on a canvas is one thing, but when it comes to something in bronze, there's so much time involved and there's a permanence about it," Sullivan says. "But Rob has always been very compassionate. I look to him as just one of the most non-jaded, non-cynical people I know."
Girandola met with several of the firefighters during his work. It was Green who told him Beyer had left his helmet behind during a break, hefting hoses and equipment up the endless stairs, stopping to pass out bottled water and assist people headed the other way. He gained details from others, too. Arlene Beyer says she was surprised and, ultimately, touched when Girandola asked to see pictures of her husband, then spent hours poring over hundreds of images of Beyer at home, with his family, in uniform. Paul Beyer was 37 and had been a firefighter nearly a decade when he died.
"Rob really wanted to get to know who he was," says Beyer, who lives in Staten Island, N.Y. "It was difficult for him. You could see he really wanted to make us happy."
Perhaps most difficult was meeting with Beyer's sons, Michael, now 20, and Shawn, 19. The boys were reluctant at first, but Girandola won their trust. After speaking with Michael Beyer one day for about an hour, he convinced the teen to become part of the sculpture by pressing his fingerprint into his father's hand. Shawn followed with his own, and Arlene placed her handprint lovingly behind her husband's arm.
"He asked if my boys would be inclined to do that, so they would forever be here," she says. "There have been mixed emotions for my sons. They know their father was a hero. They know he went to work one day. And they know he didn't come home. And they don't want to know more right now.
"I don't know what Rob said to Michael, but he reached him. It was very moving."
Much of the emotion came from Girandola, himself a father of three, who donated his time for the project. He threw himself into the piece, often starting just after he got home from the office and working well past midnight, says his wife, Christine (Voytek) Girandola '88, a Fairfield alumna who he married in the old Loyola Chapel. She tried to capture the work's progress on film. "I'd take some pictures and then I'd fall asleep on the couch. Then I'd wake up at three in the morning and he'd be so much farther along," she says, shaking her head in amazement.
Sometimes he would play music or a CD of the reading of the names of those who died on Sept. 11. "It was a very spiritual moment," says Girandola, who is often overcome with emotion when speaking of the experience. "I couldn't stop. I was trying to find them in the clay."
Jane Sutherland isn't surprised. She taught studio art classes to Girandola at Fairfield. "Rob's dedication to his art and his intelligence and skill made him the kind of student who stands out and the kind one looks forward to hearing about in the future," she says. Though a biology major, Girandola won a studio art award his senior year and staged a solo show at the PepsiCo Theatre. He also painted an ambitious mural depicting everyday people - and, in turn, the human condition - on a wall in Loyola Hall that has since been reconfigured.
"He's a person who really cares about what's going on and makes art that responds to life around him," Sutherland says. "As a student he could make the ordinary seem extraordinary."
Girandola created "We Draw Strength From Each Other" in July and August of 2006, beginning with a wooden underdrawing covered with chicken wire that would hold the clay in place. He spent days working on the men's faces and he was nearly satisfied when Arlene Beyer called with a request: She wondered if he could add a small scorpion keychain that her husband always pinned on his gear. He was happy to comply. He had already added wedding bands to the ring fingers of the three men who were married. Beyer's hand also includes a lifeline drawn by Girandola's mentor, 87-year-old sculptor Laszlo Ispanky, who visited him during the creation and was moved to contribute.
"We Draw Strength From Each Other" went to a Pennsylvania foundry to be forged in bronze. O'Hagan, Beyer, Holohan, and Johnston were finally ready to go home.
On Oct. 15, Girandola watched as workers loaded the finished piece on a rig in Lambertville, Penn. Authorities closed the Holland Tunnel, where the new Engine 6 met the rig and carried the piece to Ground Zero. Once there, the firefighters pulled away the packing material, leaving the American flag that shrouded it. The men saluted, took in the moment, and then turned and headed for the nearby firehouse.
The whole Engine 6 family gathered that day to dedicate the piece as it took its place on the wall. The chaplain handed Girandola an aspersorium, a vessel filled with holy water. One by one, family members dipped the aspergill into the vessel, sprinkling the piece with the blessed water. As each came forward, Girandola began to recognize those he'd only known through calls or photos. Two young boys approached. He caught his breath as he realized they were O'Hagan's twins, who he'd only seen as babies in five-year-old photos with their dad.
Sullivan was among those who attended the unveiling. "I was overwhelmed," he says. "It is such a charged work and to watch people respond to it... It was amazing." Beyer believes the entire firehouse is indebted to Girandola for preserving this memory for those who served with her husband and for generations to come. "He got it right," she says simply. "And we consider him a part of our family."
For Girandola the journey is not over. In addition to new sculptures and paintings he's working on, he's creating "Radio Silence," a painting that depicts the emotions he felt listening to Green tell his story. "He just made it out, he just made it out," Girandola says, tears welling in his eyes. "And the first thing he did was get on the radio to call his men. And he got nothing. He got radio silence."
The rough underdrawing for "We Draw Strength From Each Other" recently won a place in the prestigious nine-state Art of the Northeast exhibition at Silvermine Guild Art Center in New Canaan. Girandola says the final work's creation and the unveiling ceremony have made him consider the power of art, a subject he's been wrestling with since classes with Sutherland and late night talks with Sullivan.
"Watching another person connecting with it I understood what an artist does," he says. "I felt, right there for the first time, what art really was - that connection to others."