Portales students chat with N.Y. firefighter via Skype

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom New Mexico

“Hi, my name is Lindsay,” the girl said looking at the monitor.

The man on the monitor smiled and said, “Hi, my daughter’s name is Lindsay.”

It wasn’t the first connection, nor the last.

Scores of Lindsey Elementary students put a face with a name they’d known for months Friday afternoon, as a Skype video chat joined New York Fire Department 51st Battalion Chief Michael Borst from his home in Long Island, N.Y., to a packed assembly room.

Borst, a first responder during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, spent about an hour answering questions about his job, working in the aftermath of a terrorist attack and the treatment Lindsey students helped provide.

The first seeds were planted in 2007, when Glenn Russ, a deputy with the Curry County Sheriff’s Office, helped escort former NFL player George Martin during a cross-country walk to benefit a program called A Journey for 9/11.

Martin, who played defensive end for the New York Giants, founded the organization to help with the substantial cost of care for Sept. 11 first responders that was not covered by government and private insurance.

Russ kept in touch with Martin, and eventually he and Russ’ wife, Dana, participated in a walk to support the charity in September in New York City.

That meant Dana, a social studies teacher at Lindsey, missed a few days of school. When she returned, her students asked her why she was gone. She told them about the organization and how she helped raise funds. The students asked if they could help.

Over the next few months, 28 students raised $1,400 — enough to pay for a rehab program for Borst.

“I’m amazed how they came through,” Glenn Russ said. “They’re just young kids.”

Debris that Borst inhaled during the course of the 9/11 recovery effort raised mercury and lead content in his blood, and wreaked havoc on his respiratory system.

Borst told the children he is feeling much better following the month-long treatment, which took six hours a day for seven days a week. Every day, he said, he took the train to Manhattan, got loaded up on a physician-monitored intake of vitamins and minerals, did time on a treadmill and sweated out matters in a sauna.

The hardest work, he joked, was the treadmill.

“I’m a Clydesdale,” he said. “I’m not a runner.”

Borst took numerous questions about Sept. 11 from children who spoke to him via laptop and its installed webcam, including the decisions he had to make and the friends he’d lost.

He said he knew of about 100 firefighters who died in the attacks, and said “luck of the draw” is all that keeps a firefighter alive sometimes.

“You never get over it; I think about them all the time,” Borst said. “You honor them by continuing to do your job. If I could change that day, I would in a second. But I can’t. You have to keep talking about them.”

The staff at Lindsey, and Borst, thought using the video chat network would provide a low-cost way to provide a face-to-face experience.

“I think it’s really important our students got to do this,” Dana Russ said to Borst at the conclusion. “So many of them were so little when it happened, and this makes it more real for us.”