Dec. 3, 1999, Worcester, Mass.: Two homeless people light a candle in a warehouse, igniting a five-day fire that would claim the lives of Denis Leary’s cousin Jerry and five other firefighters.
“My cousin always complained about the underfunding,” Leary recalls. “Firefighters are the last guys on the funding totem pole because they don’t go on strike.”
So Leary did something about it. In 2000, in the star’s hometown of Worcester, he launched the Leary Firefighters Foundation to help firefighters with equipment, training and technology.
Sept. 11, 2001: Leary’s lifelong friends are New York City firemen. Capt. Paddy Brown perishes. Leary’s buddy and former Boston Bruins athlete “Ace” Bailey, is on the plane that hit the South Tower.
“We were lucky to have the funding in place,” Leary says. “We gave (the NYC Fire Dept.) a mobile command unit, and that was also used in New Orleans.”
The foundation is near completion on a 4,000-square-foot high-rise simulator on Randall’s Island. Today, the org has pledges and grants of $10 million.
“I opened the foundation with the idea that we would eventually go out of business because the federal, state or city government would say, ‘It’s about time that we paid firemen what we pay baseball players,” Leary says. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
New Orleans District Chief Tim McConnell and his station did all they could to help the people of New Orleans during the Katrina catastrophe and soon found themselves in need of more help.
“A lot of the guys were working out of trailers,” McConnell says. “Then one day we got a visit from the Leary Foundation, and one of its employees said they thought they could help renovate one of the stations. In the end, we got three renovated at once.”
The Leary Foundation had previously bought 15 rescue boats for the firefighters and rescue groups. Plus, “we have been able to restore 16 stations, 10 of those specifically with the help of the Leary Foundation,” McDonnell says.
“And the foundation has helped us with supplying the right tools needed for the operation as well as recruiting volunteers to help restore these stations.”
— Justin Kroll