Shortly after the tragedy of 9/11, a wonderful story was reported by Page Ivey of The Associated Press. It emerged from a school house in Columbia, South Carolina.
First, a little historical perspective. Two years after the Civil War, with much of Columbia still in ruins, some of the bitterness over the North-South conflict was put aside by a single gesture: New York firefighters set out to collect pennies to buy Columbia a firetruck.
On February 17, 1865, a devastating blaze…had devoured over 36 blocks, or about one-third of the city. Columbia had lost most of its firefighting equipment during the Civil War and desperately used bucket brigades in their attempt to douse flames.
Not long after, New York City firemen, many of them former Union soldiers, raised $5,000—mostly in pennies—and put a hose-reel wagon on a steamship bound for Columbia, South Carolina. It was March of 1867. On the way, the ship sank, but instead of giving up, they took up another collection and sent a second hose-reel wagon in June of that same year.
So overwhelmed was former Confederate Colonel Samuel Melton that he made a promise on behalf of South Carolina's capital city to return the kindness "should misfortune ever befall the Empire City."
After 9/11, elementary principal Nancy Turner and her teachers were trying to find some tangible way their students could respond to the attacks. The children were too young to give blood, and no one liked the idea of simply sending money to an impersonal national fund. Eventually the decision was made to collect money to buy a fire truck.
Then Turner stumbled on records of New York's long-ago gift while researching the cost and what type of truck to buy. It was easy to get city leaders and the state governor, Jim Hodges, to join in. Columbia's fire chief was a New York native. The effort was renamed "South Carolina Remembers." After 134 years, the day to remember came and the children of Columbia took it on themselves to honor that pledge.
They collected pennies at football games, held bake sales, and sold T-shirts in a drive to raise the $350,000 needed to replace one of the dozens of New York City firetrucks destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.
The idea began from a lesson in giving. Donations poured in. One donor wrote: "When I was growing up in Columbia, Mama always said you need to return a kindness. I know she'd be as glad as I am to be part of this wonderful thank-you gesture."
In notes to the students, donors told personal stories connecting them with loved ones who died on 9/11, to firefighters, and in one case, to Confederate soldiers.
In her article, Page Ivey tells about one of the most unforgettable donations, coming from Russell Siller of Rockville Centre, New York. Siller's brother, Stephen, was part of the elite firefighter force Squad 1. He died that terrible day. Siller wrote: "At a time like this, when the whole nation is still mourning its loss, what a powerful and poetic message your efforts send to all of us. I am proud that New York's bravest sent you a fire truck in your city's time of need. . . . To think that you would honor a pledge made so many years ago! The new fire truck will become a symbol for your love, for your country, and for New York's bravest."