KEARNY — Last Saturday afternoon, exactly 77 years to the day — and to the hour — that he gave his life fighting a meadowlands blaze, Firefighter Robert Hamilton was honored by the Kearny Fire Department, township officials and local residents for the supreme sacrifice he made.
It was a solemn, and somewhat emotional, ceremony, starting with a formal procession of the KFD honor guard, led by a piper playing “America the Beautiful,” and ending with the unveiling of a portrait to be added to the department’s Wall of Honor, and a plaque — already placed on KFD Engine 4 — citing Hamilton’s years of service and his line-of-duty death.
Hamilton had joined the KFD on Jan. 1, 1922, and died of a heart attack while fighting that brush fire on Jan 13, 1941.
So, why did it take so long to honor the man? Because, until fairly recently, no one in Kearny had known his story. And because it wasn’t until well after 1941 (we are still trying to find the exact year the rule changed) that heart attacks — even those suffered by someone on active duty — were officially defined as line-of-duty deaths.
As we first reported in The Observer this past Aug. 23: “When the last group of Kearny Fire Department recruits was at the Fire Academy, they and the rest of the cadets were given an assignment by an instructor, Capt. David Hamilton: Research line-of-duty deaths in the department they planned to join.
“‘Every recruit class gets this assignment,’ noted Hamilton, who serves with the Nutley Fire Department. ‘It’s educational, and they can give their report to the families of the firefighters and to the department.’
“The KFD cadets learned that two members of the township department — Firefighter Emanuel ‘Manny’ Gennace (Dec. 24, 1977) and Capt. Robert E. Ball (Nov. 12, 1973) — had died in the line of duty. They reported same to Hamilton, and he told them, ‘There was actually a third.’”
Capt. Hamilton knew this only because FF Robert Hamilton was his great-grandfather’s brother and he had heard the story as a boy from his grandfather.
Capt. Hamilton, who attended Saturday’s program with his own brother, Lt. Chris Hamilton of the Nutley FD, told us that after his grandfather died in 2009, he was going through some family papers and discovered news articles and Robert Hamilton’s obituary, which filled in the details of his relative’s death.
When we were working on our August story, Josh Humphrey of the Kearny Public Library and Steven Thiele of the Thiele-Reid Funeral Home helped us find obits and other information on the deceased. And KFD Chief Steve Dyl gave us access to the hand-written records book detailing what had happened that fateful day so long ago.
The following is the report inscribed in pen and ink by Capt. I. Oliver on Jan. 13, 1941:
“During an alarm of fire at 2:28 p.m. … a still alarm and telephone call from alarm dispatcher stated to send Engine No. 4 and Truck No. 3 to Hackensack Ave. near the Coca-Cola Co.
“Upon their arrival found brush burning and dangerously near and close to parked autos of unknown owners. [Hamilton’s obituary noted that these belonged to employees of the Federal Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., which property was also apparently threatened by the fast-moving flames.] Stretched in three lines of 2 ½’’ hose with hydrant pressure to stop spread of fire.
“During course of fire, Fireman Sweet [we think that’s the name; handwriting was difficult to read] called to me stating Fireman R. Hamilton had collapsed at nozzle.
“Firemen Sweet, Lord and myself carried him to road (Hackensack Ave.), covered him with blanket and immediately sent in a call for police ambulance of 2nd Pct.
“Patrolman Campbell and Fireman Cliff Garrison arrived in ambulance and removed Fireman Hamilton to West Hudson Hospital.
“On my return to quarters, I was informed that Fireman Hamilton had passed away in death.”
On Saturday, Jan. 13, as part of the ceremony, actual alarms were sent out by the KFD repeating — at the same minutes/hours — the alerts and calls for aid that had been broadcast in ‘41. (Our colleague Kevin Canessa, who — like us — was not aware that this would be done, heard them on a scanner. When he realized what he was listening to, “I got chills,” he said.)
Among those attending the program, held at KFD headquarters on Midland Ave., were Mayor Alberto Santos and members of the Town Council.
Councilwoman Susan McCurrie, who serves on the governing body’s Fire Committee, addressed the audience, saying of firefighters, “They are a different breed altogether.”
“The men and women in the fire service,” she noted, “have a deep compassion for others” and there is “an unbreakable bond” among them. An example of that bond was the honor finally being paid to FFHamilton.
“He was a hero whose story was found again.”
In his remarks, Santos cited Hamilton’s “very impressive life story.” To him, Santos noted, “public service as a firefighter was not a job, it was his vocation in life.” The mayor also presented the department with an official mayoral/council proclamation, expressing gratitude and condolences, and ending with this statement: “We remember and honor all fire and emergency personnel, past and present, who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their community by their faithful and loyal devotion to their duties.”
Hamilton’s impressive life story, by the way, included serving, at age 20, as a member of the U.S. Army serving in the Spanish-American War. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he reenlisted — at age 38 — and spent 18 months overseas in that brutal conflict.
His service is noted on his headstone in Kearny’s Arlington Cemetery, where he is buried with his wife, Lucy, who died in 1971.
Last summer, when Chief Dyl and yours truly searched for the burial plot (it was Dyl who found it), the stone was nearly illegible — covered with moss and mildew. Michael Perrone, president of the Belleville Historical Society — and a professional stonemason — cleaned and refurbished it to pristine condition. At no cost. (He was at the memorial ceremony, too.)
Someone else who contributed their talents to the Hamilton tribute is superbly talented artist Jen Bissu, a West New York native who now lives in Pennsylvania and who is a friend of Kearny’s Karl Petry.
Hamilton’s name, and photograph, were to be added to the KFD’s Wall of Honor. However, aside from grainy newspaper images, a photograph of the hero could not be found. When Petry heard of the Hamilton story, he contacted Bissu, who volunteered to paint the a portrait of the firefighter. At no cost.
Bissu traveled from Pennsylvania to deliver the painting and be present for its unveiling Saturday. Because the only Hamilton photos were in black-and-white, an accurate color portrait was problematic. What color was his hair? His eyes? So the artist opted for a composition in black and grays and white.
We initially thought she had worked in charcoal, but Petry corrected us. It’s an oil painting. And it is a stunning work of art.
At the program, we asked her why she had offered to assist with the Hamilton project.
“I heard the story,” she said, “and to me it’s of a huge magnitude when someone sacrifices themselves for the benefit of others. I just really wanted to memorialize him forever. It’s unacceptable for him to have been forgotten after making the ultimate sacrifice.”
(If you are interested in seeing examples of Bissu’s beautiful art, visit her web page at www.JenBissu.com. And in case you’re wondering, she did not ask for that plug. We just think she deserves it.)
And while we’re giving props, special thanks should go out to the committee of KFD members who organized the comprehensive, impressive and moving ceremony: Capt. Vic Girdwood, Capt. Matt Mitchell, and Firefighters Wil Lopez (who did an excellent job as emcee), Frank McAllister and Steven Dyl.
The memorial program, which concluded with a moment of silence, had begun with a prayer by Father Joe Mancini, pastor of St. Stephen’s Church and KFD chaplain. We shall end this story with a quote from that regarding Robert Hamilton:
“Called to be a Kearny firefighter, he gave his life in the line of duty on this day, Jan. 13, 1941. In this way, he fulfilled the words of Scripture, ‘Greater love has no man than to give his life for his friends.’”