Friendship not forgotten Firefighters raise money to fight autism in memory of colleague
by Tom Jennemann Reporter staff writer
May 30, 2003 | 907 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
John Fanning was not from Hoboken, but that did not stop the Hoboken Fire Department (HFD) from thinking of him as part of their family. Without ever being asked, Fanning, a West Hempstead, N.Y. resident and a Battalion Chief for the New York Fire Department (NYFD), was always there for his "friends across the pond," and the Hoboken firefighters want his family to know that his selfless gestures will not be forgotten.

The men and women of the HFD have spent the last several months donating a portion of their paychecks and have helped Fanning's wife Maureen to organize an event scheduled for June 12 that will raise money for the Jack Fanning Memorial Foundation. The foundation has been dubbed "Angels for Autism" and is committed to creating group homes for the autistic.

Two of Jack's and Maureen's five children, Sean, 13, and Patrick, 5, were born autistic.

On Sept. 11, Fanning was supervising the first firefighters responding to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Family members say they believe he died while trying to save others inside the towers. He was 54.

"He was a very regular, kind, hardworking man who never sought glory from his position," said Maureen, wife of 15 years.

She added that it's a moving gesture that firefighters from a town across the river would go "above and beyond" to honor Jack. "They really have adopted us, and we're lucky to have them," she said.

Fanning was a highly decorated firefighter. He was once honored for diving into the East River to rescue passengers of a helicopter that had crashed. Another time, he was honored for saving a boy dangling from cables in an empty elevator shaft between the third and fourth story of a burning building in the Bronx.

Fanning had a history of going the extra mile to aid the HFD. In 1994, Hoboken faced a significant crisis regarding the status of its two aerial fire trucks. According to Hoboken Fire Capt. Dan Cunning, both were worn and often in need of maintenance. In fact, he said, during one drill, one truck was being repaired and the other failed. This created tension between the administration and the fire union, said Cunning. There was even talk of closing one aerial truck company, a move that would have cost jobs and according to Cunning, could have adversely affected community safety.

Fanning, at the time, was the chief in charge of what the FDNY calls Fleet Services. That unit is in charge of all the fire apparatus for the city. According to Cunning, he responded to the city's plight by offering to provide a loaner aerial ladder truck. The city used the truck free of charge for two years.

After the second year, he sold it to Hoboken for $250, which was basically the cost of the administrative paperwork, said Cunning.

"Since that time, we have bought another truck," said Cunning. "But to this day, that truck we bought for $250 is still our back up. He really looked out and took care of us for years."

Several years later Fanning became the chief in charge of all Hazardous Materials Operations for the FDNY. While there, he helped establish the fire department's emergency response to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

One time, Fanning arranged for Hoboken to "piggyback" on the FDNY's much larger contract with a private contractor for hazardous materials suits. While Hoboken needed less than a dozen suits, the FDNY needed hundreds. Being put on the FDNY's much larger order, Hoboken benefited from the much lower bulk rate, saving thousands of dollars.

"This provided a significant savings to the city and to the fire department's budget, and provided the latest protective equipment to the firefighter to handle emergencies where this equipment would be essential for the safety of the firefighters involved," said Cunning. "Once again, he was there for us."

The firefighters of Hoboken are eternally grateful to Fanning for all that he did for Hoboken, Cunning added.

Fanning's dream

Caring for two children with autism without a father has been difficult for Maureen Fanning. Sean, the 14-year-old, was placed in a group home for the handicapped six weeks after the WTC attacks. Maureen now must travel an hour to visit her son. Their younger son, Patrick, is still at home but needs around-the-clock care.

In an interview last week, Maureen said that during one of the last conversations she had with Jack they talked about the possibility of raising money to create a group home for autistic children just like Sean and Patrick. Autism is a complex developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life, though it is sometimes diagnosed much later. It affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills.

Autism is an emotional disorder that encompasses a wide continuum of behavior. Core features include impaired social interactions, impaired verbal and nonverbal communication, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior.

Since Sept. 11, Maureen has established the Jack Fanning Memorial Foundation or "Angels for Autism." The Fanning family has already received state approvals for two houses with six beds each.

"And we don't intend to stop there," Fanning said. "These are just going to be the first two of a dozen or more."

She added that autism can be a difficult to handle for most working and middle class parents. "Unless you are extremely wealthy, it's hard to work and give the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week care that is required for a person with autism," she said.

Free concert

In addition to every Hoboken firefighter's donation of $5 out of each of their paychecks since October, the Hoboken chapters of the International Association of Firefighters also will be organizing a free concert scheduled for Sinatra Park on June 12 at 6 p.m.

The rock band Sugarbush will be performing. Sinatra Café, Outback Steakhouse, Coors Light/Peerless Beverage Co., and Biggie's Clam Bar will be selling food and beverages and will donate all proceeds to the Jack Fanning Memorial Foundation. There will also be T-shirts sold and a raffle in which the winner will get dinner for two at several different Hoboken restaurants. For information on the event visit or call (201) 647-5265.
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