A Friend to Firefighters

Nancy Carbone was one of thousands of New Yorkers who flooded into their neighborhood New York City firehouses on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, offering to help in any way they could.

Over time, most of those people left.

Carbone stuck around.

Today, the Brooklyn wife and mother of two runs Friends of Firefighters, a nonprofit counseling center that counsels and cares for New York City firefighters.

On Sept. 11, Carbone said, she watched one neighbor after another walk into her local firehouse in Brooklyn with checks in their hands.

"I told [the firefighters,] 'I don't have any money, so I can't give you any money. Why don't you give me something else to do?'" she said.

Firefighter John Sorrentino remembers the day he met Carbone.

"It was absolutely crazy," he said. "There were a million things going on."

"She came up to me -- total stranger -- and said, 'Is there anything I can do to help?' I said, 'Yeah, you wanna help? We need a bugler to play 'Taps' for a funeral.'"

"She found one for us," Sorrentino said.

"Taps," also known as "Butterfield's Lullaby," was written in 1862 by a Civil War Union general named Daniel Butterfield.

It's traditionally played on a bugle, at a distance of 30 yards to 50 yards away from the service.

"I found the bugler behind a tree," Carbone said, still amazed. "I waited till everything was over and kind of ambushed him. I didn't have a pen. He had a marker, so I took it and wrote his number on my arm."

From there the assignments continued.

"We need doves."

"We need bunting for a memorial service."

"We need therapists."

She said she went to funerals "almost every day for as long as I can remember."

Over time, the wounded, overwhelmed men and women of the New York City Fire Department came to trust and rely on Carbone's desire to help.

"Basically, it was a tremendous leap of faith on their part. I'm just a civilian that came to their firehouse," Carbone said, referring to the Middagh Street firehouse in Brooklyn. "I took that very seriously. I took that to mean they expected something of me, and I wasn't going to let them down."

Word of Carbone's straight talk, sincerity, and near constant presence among the firefighters spread.

"I can say I have never met anyone who so sincerely wanted to help, no strings attached," Sorrentino said. "And she proved herself over and over."

She understood the nature of the bond between firefighters, and respected their privacy, he said.

"We're a close-knit brotherhood-type organization, and she knows exactly when to come in [to the firehouse] and do her thing and knows when to leave," he said. "She never sticks her nose where it doesn't belong. When you ask her for advice, she gave you exactly what you needed."

She was invited to one house after another to help out.

Her respect for firefighters and the work they do is infectious.

"They make life-and-death decisions every day," she said. "At any time they could be going to the big one and that could be it. They need the firehouse to be their focus. They need the camaraderie, because that keeps them alive."

She said that over time she had been privileged to be considered a true friend.

Soon she became a well-known presence in firehouses across the city, firefighters who have benefited from Carbone's work said to ABC News.

"God bless her," said Capt. Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, a union of 2,500 FDNY superior officers.

"We need more people like her."

Many firefighters were suffering searing psychological fallout from 9/11. Carbone said she learned quickly how hard it could be for New York's Bravest to show signs of vulnerability.

That fact has become the cornerstone of her life's work.

"What they are are first responders," she said. "Their lives depend on being in control. They are the ones we go to when we need help. It's sometimes very difficult for them to ask for help. And after what they've been through, they damn well deserve our help."

In January 2002, a firefighter asked Carbone about finding a place where the firefighters could go to relax, to talk about their problems, to escape the often maddening grief that for some their own firehouses represented.

By March, Carbone had secured a storefront on Columbia Street in Red Hook from friends Elizabeth and Greg O'Connell, whom she knew from her daughter's school.

"They gave it to us for free for the first year," Carbone said. Firefighters renovated the space on their time off. Supplies were donated.

Carbone registered the new organization as a nonprofit, and word of mouth began to spread, first in Brooklyn, and then the other boroughs, about the counseling service.

She began funding the center with her own money, and then that began to run out.

Grants and donations over the years -- from organizations such as the American Red Cross, the Robin Hood Foundation, the German American Solidarity Fund, and Commerzbank in Frankfurt, Germany -- kept the center open.

Carbone teamed up with Safe Horizons, a victim's assistance agency that provided trained, licensed counselors.

Carbone, who is most comfortable working behind the scenes, is concerned that this year's 9/11 anniversary is going to be particularly tough.

"There are guys that [are] just now beginning to hit the wall," she said, referring to an emotional breakdown.

"These guys are tough, really tough. They'll hold it in and hold it in and hold it in. Eventually, they can't hold it anymore.

"That's what this place is here for."

Like many of the firefighters who spoke to ABC News, Sorrentino is grateful.

"We did a lot of praying for miracles after 9/11, and I think God answered us by sending Nancy over," he said.

For more information about Friends of Firefighters, click http://www.friendsoffirefighters.org