WATERVILLE MAY BE small compared to other cities in Maine and beyond, but big things are happening in a class at Mid-Maine Technical Center at Waterville Senior High School.

And because of that class, the lives of a retired firefighter/emergency medical technician, a young firefighter/EMT who took the class and now works for two Maine fire departments, and a retired New York City firefighter who survived the 9/11 attacks are forever intertwined.

Each February, the emergency services class, taught by Kerry Pomelow, takes a trip to New York City.

The 22 or so students who study firefighting and EMT rescue work raise money through auctions, dinners, gift-wrapping activities and singing Christmas carols in public during the holidays to garner the approximately $450 per student needed for the trip. Six to eight chaperones accompany them.

In New York, the group visits the 9/11 Memorial Museum, New York City Fire Academy, various fire and rescue stations, and most importantly, they meet and talk with firefighters about their jobs.

The trip is possible because of Tom Savinelli, who with his wife, Candace, owns the Italian bakery, Holy Cannoli, in downtown Waterville.

Savinelli, a retired firefighter/EMT for the West Haven, Conn., Fire Department, spoke to the Mid-Maine Technical Center class a few years ago, and as instructors there like to say, he never left.

Staff and students were so fascinated by Savinelli’s experience and knowledge that he became a volunteer instructor of sorts, returning again and again to the class. He eventually organized the New York City field trip, the first of which happened in 2010.

Savinelli, 62, who also takes the students to his former department in West Haven, knows a lot of Connecticut and New York City firefighters, including Tim Brown, a retired firefighter/EMT from Manhattan who survived the 9/11 attacks. Each year when the students go to New York, they meet Brown, who is featured in “Rebirth,” an acclaimed documentary about 9/11 made by Jim Whitaker. The film follows five people whose lives were forever altered on Sept. 11, 2001. Proceeds from the sale of the film help communities affected by disasters.

The tech students watch the film in Waterville prior to the trip and then meet Brown in New York.

Tyler Arsenault, 22, of Winthrop, remembers that class well — and meeting Brown, with whom he stays in touch.

As a 17-year old Winthrop High School student in 2010, Arsenault commuted to the technical center class in Waterville for a whole year because no place in his area offered such a class. He was inducted into the National Technical Honor Society for his work in that class.

Because of the Waterville course and his two years at Southern Maine Community College, where he received an associates degree in fire science, he now is a full-time firefighter/EMT for Auburn Fire Department, works part time as an EMT for Winthrop Ambulance and is a call firefighter for Winthrop.

“It’s helped get me to where I am today,” he said of the class. “With going to New York, I met a lot of people, and the fire service is about who you know, so making connections was huge. It’s an eye-opening experience, especially if you want to continue with this career.”

Arsenault, whose father is a retired 20-year Winthrop volunteer firefighter, knew from the time he was in fourth grade that he wanted to be a firefighter, he said. Meeting Savinelli was particularly instructive for Arsenault because Savinelli worked on a ladder truck, and that’s exactly what Arsenault wanted to do and now does in his job.

“When Tom spoke, you listened,” he said. “We knew he was a firefighter and had connections, and respect is one of the things that young people coming into the fire service should recognize. Guys with experience like that — you listen to.”

Meanwhile, Savinelli has known Brown, a Manhattan resident, for 34 years, ever since Brown was a teenager, living at the West Haven station and learning the fire service while attending University of New Haven.

“Tom was a paid firefighter,” Brown recalled in a phone conversation. “I’d jump on trucks with them to help them out. They would help me and teach me and mentor me. I was very lucky to have that experience.”

Brown, now 52, said he looks forward to meeting and talking with the Waterville students every year.

“I love it,” he said. “Some are kids I met before. I’m friends with a lot of them on Facebook. I stay in touch with them. The new kids — I look forward to influencing them in a good way, and mentoring them. What else, when I leave this earth, do I have other than leaving a good legacy?”

Brown says he sees himself in many of the students.

“I am them. I became a New York firefighter at 22. I was not a good kid when I was 14 years old. I was a bad kid. I was failing out of high school, doing things I shouldn’t be doing. I was bored and I hated school and I hated home.”

A friend, Jay Walsh, told him he could be a junior firefighter at 15 and ultimately become a firefighter — a statement that would change Brown’s life forever, he said.

“I stopped doing the bad things, my grades improved and I joined the junior firefighter program. At 17, I volunteered on the ambulance. At 18, I was a volunteer firefighter in Newington, Conn.”

He would go on to work for the New York City Fire Department and was a firefighter assigned to now former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office of emergency management. He said he and Giuliani remain friends.

“I was promoted to supervisor of field operations. Basically, I had 15 first responders who worked for me, and we responded to major disasters and events in New York City and represented the mayor at those emergencies. With the power of the mayor at the scene of emergencies, you got things done quicker for the citizens of New York in their time of need. I really loved, loved, loved that job.”

Brown’s office was at 7 World Trade Center, and on 9/11, he recalled the first plane flying over the roof of his building and slamming into the tower. The lights went out for five seconds and then came back on. He knew something major had happened.

“We lost the electrical feeder cable and the backup system kicked in. I found out about the plane from a girl sitting at the window. She ran toward me. Everybody was panicking. She said, ‘A plane just hit the tower.'”

Brown went to his car to get his helmet, took his tie off, donned his heavy boots and went to the lobby of the tower building to support the incident commander. He was there when the second plane hit. He was sent to Tower 2 where people were trapped in an elevator.

“You could see in the shaft. At the top of the opening you could see the elevator car had fallen 70 floors. The cable had been severed by the plane. There were about eight people in it and they were screaming and they couldn’t get out — the opening was not big enough. We tried to fight the fire with fire extinguishers. The people were getting burned, and in my frustration, I turned to the right and my shoulder hit a firefighter. It was my friend, Mike, who said, ‘Timmy, I got it covered.'”

The elevator below the victims was on fire, and they were getting burned. Seeing his friend, Mike, and other firefighters was a huge relief at the time, but Brown later learned that at least one and possibly only two people were rescued from the elevator.

His friend, Mike, did not survive.

Brown went back to his command post and heard about the other planes involved in the terror attack. He tried to call the Pentagon and that’s when he learned that that building had been hit as well.

“The lobby was filling up with people, very badly injured. They were burned and bloody and broken.”

He ran to Liberty Street with other paramedics, and they were near Tower 2 when it collapsed. The roar was deafening.

“You could hear each floor collapse on to the next one.”

They ran to 3 World Trade Center, to a restaurant, and the building was collapsing around them. Brown found a column — a vertical piece of steel — and he grabbed on to it, holding on for dear life, but thinking he probably was not going to make it.

He found himself with several other people in a space that in 1993 had been repaired by iron workers who used steel that was too big — and that is what saved them, he said.

“That little area was a cocoon for us, for life. That was it. We got out when people 25 feet from me were killed.”

Brown lost all of his friends in the terrorist attacks, which killed 343 firefighters. Through support from others and his own strength of character — and by helping the families of those who died — Brown survived emotionally.

“It’s one of the greatest things you can do in your own grief is to help others in grief — help others that need help. I attended four, five, six funerals or wakes every day, and you still couldn’t even make it to all of them.”

In 2002, Brown retired after 20 years and went to Washington, D.C., to work with the federal government in its bio-terrorism efforts. He returned to New York in 2004 and now works for the Department of Defense.

He also speaks to students at colleges and high schools, but says the Waterville students are near and dear to his heart.

“I have a particular love for what Tom (Savinelli) is doing. I think it is very important as a society to get to these kids. They’re good kids. A lot of people shake their heads at the next generation and say, ‘We’re in trouble.’ I see these kids and I say something different. I say we’re lucky to have them.”

Raising funds for the trip has been difficult this year, Savinelli said. Anyone wanting to contribute may contact Pomelow at the school at 873-0102, extension 173. If not enough money is raised for the trip, some participants will pitch in private funds. Also, a benefit breakfast will be held 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. March 14 at the End Zone on Elm Street to recoup the money. The cost of the breakfast is $6 for adults and $4 for children. If more is raised than needed, the funds will go into next year’s trip fund.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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