Since 2003, hoteliers and others in the canal city have invited firefighters there to row its waters as a show of solidarity.
Every year, a group of New York firefighters participate in events leading up to the Regatta Storica, a prominent Venetian event. Credit…Clara Vannucci for The New York Times.
By Andrew Cotto
Published Sept. 10, 2019.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Daniel Nigro was chief of operations for the New York Fire Department. By the end of the day, after 343 firefighters had died, including Peter J. Ganci Jr., the department chief, he was in charge.
Mr. Nigro immediately became a public figure for collective grief.
“We could see from the pictures that he was sad,” said Bepi D’Este, a retired accountant and active civic figure on Burano island in the Venetian Lagoon, who, along with some of his friends, including a well-known restaurateur and the former president of a gondola company, often saw Mr. Nigro in the news. “We thought, let’s invite him here to Venice to have a good time. Maybe we can cheer him up.”
So they did.
Mr. Nigro and his wife, Lynn, traveled to Venice in September 2002, after he had stepped down from leading the department through a difficult year. They were treated to a ride steered by the legendary gondolier Gigi Strighetta, who came out of retirement to guide them. Venetians waved and cheered from the windows, bridges and banks of the canals.
At the time, Mr. Nigro was unaware that the cheering from the Venetians was for the unexpected appearance of the beloved gondolier, not the retired fire chief and his wife from New York. Still, he recalled being buoyed by the experience. He went on to have an inspired lunch at Harry’s Bar with Mr. D’Este and his friends. There, an idea was born.
The men decided that a group from the Fire Department — all members of the FDNY Columbia Association, a social organization that is predominantly made up of Italian-American firefighters — would come for a week every year to train with the Venetians for a cultural exchange and a gondola race. The latter would take place the day before the Regatta Storica, a prominent cultural event on the Grand Canal in Venice that happens on the first Sunday of September and celebrates, through grand pageantry and intense competition, the significance of rowing to the city.
In order to accommodate the New York firefighters, several Venetian hospitality experts were recruited. Lorenza Lain, a hotelier, arranged for rooms for incoming New Yorkers at the finest hotels in the city, including the Belmond Hotel Cipriani, and worked with other hoteliers to host dinners and galas in support of the effort.
The initial endeavors of the hoteliers were primarily funded by Sir Bruno Fusato Signoretti, founder of B.F. Signoretti Murano Venetian Glass, who died in 2014. “We told Bruno what we wanted to do,” Mr. D’Este said, “And he said ‘Make it happen. The money is not a problem.’”
One of Mr. Signoretti’s daughters, Elisabetta Fusato Signoretti, now the general manager of the glass factory, is continuing what her father started.
“My father was a child during the Second World War. He remembers how the Americans saved us, and he felt like a part of them,” Ms. Fusato Signoretti said. “This is how he found his passion for solidarity. After the attacks on New York,” she continued, “he wanted to do something for the children of the firefighters and for the firefighters themselves.”
Since 2003, this group of hoteliers, business owners and Mr. D’Este, who call themselves the “True Heart of Venice,” have not only helped to fund the trips for the New York firefighters, where they train with the rowing association Vogaepara, they have also contributed to scholarships for the children of those who died on Sept. 11.
The main event is a two-boat regatta featuring mixed-teams, for fairness and camaraderie, of New York Fire Department members and Venetian rowers.
Between 2003 and 2016, the annual race was held on the island of Burano, but in 2017, the venue changed to the larger, easier to reach island of Murano, with its wide main canal.
This year’s regatta took place on Aug. 31. Jerry Wood, a bagpiper with the Emerald Society Pipes and Drums of the Fire Department, played before the starter’s horn blew. Then the gondola teams cut the main canal of Murano at an impressive clip for about one kilometer.
For Joseph DePaola, a firefighter with Ladder 27 in the Bronx, it was his third time in Venice. “We meet so many great and important people who we now call friends,” Mr. DePaola said. “The time on the water is spent both rowing and socializing,” he continued. “The training is difficult, yeah, very, and we are exhausted at the end of the day, but we’re ready for whatever Bepi and company have in store for us.”
The finish of this year’s race was marked by another bagpipe tribute, followed by a celebration and ceremony in a nearby piazza. Stephen Inguagiato, an aspiring tenor and firefighter with Engine 329 in Queens, sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” He followed with Italy’s national anthem.
Wine arrived, and a party began that ambled across the piazza and into the trattoria Busa alla Torre for a meal of many courses, more wine, and songs in Italian and English.
Mr. Nigro, who came out of retirement in 2015 to become the commissioner for the Fire Department, returned to Venice this year with his wife, as he has every year since their initial visit in 2002.
“We’re always touched by how nice the people are to us,” Mr. Nigro said. “It’s really a feeling of ‘We know how hard it’s been on the New York City Fire Department, and we want to be friends,’” he continued. “I carry it. I’ll always carry it, but this lifts our spirits. It helps me very much.”