Pictured above: Approximately 30 members of the FDNY turned out for a Hooks for Heroes event memorializing firefighter Billy Tolley.
Bobby Tolley looked past me, out beyond the bow in the general direction of Jones Beach. Ahead of him, toward the pulpit of the charter vessel Capt. Pete, several anglers bounced their rod tips with a rhythmic motion, hoping to tempt some tasty fluke. Behind him, amidships, several more placed their rods in holders and eased their way up front.
It was Memorial Day weekend last May, and the US Navy Blue Angels were putting on a spectacular show. Flying low across Jones Inlet and east toward Robert Moses Beach, the sharp-nosed planes turned in unison, roaring to the approval of everyone on board before two broke off and powered straight up into the sky. Circling back, they regrouped and came from the direction of Freeport’s Nautical Mile at Woodcleft Canal, racing full speed toward the ocean beaches off our starboard side. There were oohs and aahs as the Angels showed off both their skills and incredible flying machines.
“My brother Billy would have enjoyed this,” smiled Tolley, as we watched in awe and chatted about the purpose of the day. We were relaxing and fishing on Freeport Bay with a relatively new non-profit support program called Hooks for Heroes. The day’s trip was dedicated to the memory of firefighter William (Billy) Tolley, a 14-year veteran of the FDNY, who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty last April at age 42. Tolley perished in a fall while fighting an apartment fire in Queens. He was the 1,172nd member of the FDNY to die in the line of duty. Approximately 30 members of FDNY Firehouse E286/L135, known as the “Myrtle Turtles” turned out for the event. Tolley had been assigned to Ladder Company 135.
“Fishing is a great release,” explained James Torborg, the organization’s founder, as we exited Woodcleft Canal and headed in the general direction of the Meadowbrook Parkway Bridge. “We want to share it with our heroes. In a way, it can be an alternate or additional method of treatment for them, a positive outlet they need after especially traumatic or tragic times in their lives resulting from the kind of work they perform on a daily basis.”
Torborg knows what he’s talking about and backs it up with current, pertinent data plus years of experience on the front lines. A U.S. Marine veteran, former NYPD police officer and current FDNY firefighter, he has witnessed first-hand the debilitating effects work-related stress can have.
“I use fishing as a release,” Torborg continues, “and I want to offer it to other veterans, servicemen and first responders. Hooks for Heroes sends American heroes fishing on local charter and party boats with the hope that these trips will help them cope with physical and mental injuries sustained during service. This offers our nation’s veterans and first responders a day off with a chance to catch ‘the big one.’”
As has been well documented in recent years, the negative effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are both real and substantial. Torborg cites a study conducted by the Veterans Administration revealing that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide daily.
“That is appalling and absolutely unacceptable,” says Torborg. “Our goal is to help reduce that number and prevent more tragedies from happening. While suicide is the ultimate price to pay while succumbing to PTSD, it does not reflect the additional numbers of veterans suffering from PTSD and abusing drugs/alcohol, battling depression, or enduring a slew of other unhealthy conditions.”
The program opens its opportunities to firefighters and first responders as well as military veterans.
“First responders are just as susceptible to being affected by PTSD as our country’s veterans,” continues Torborg. “They deal with the worst of people’s lives on a daily basis. PTSD is defined as a disorder that develops in some people due to a traumatic, scary, shocking or dangerous event that is life-threatening. This is the primary kind of work our military, firefighters and first responders carry out on a daily basis.”
Fishing with a group of other heroes with whom they relate can be tremendously helpful in healing people diagnosed with PTSD, claims Torborg. “We also want to help the men and women affected by service-related injuries and illnesses,” he adds. “They didn’t choose to be injured or sick from their occupations. We want to be a resource for them as well.”
The fledgling operation appears legit. Its management team takes no salaries, the organization is a 501(c) and incorporated in the State of New York, and it spends nearly every cent it takes in on providing trips for those who fit the basic parameters. In 2016, Hooks for Heroes provided one fishing trip for six heroes; in 2017, it held 14 trips accommodating 250 heroes. This year, it plans to host 30 trips and hopes to send more than 400 fishing. The trips are organized nationwide, although most so far have taken place in Florida or New York.
On this day, the heroes seemed able to lower their guard. Along the port side, Tyeisha Pugh was all smiles after reeling in the first fish of her life. It was a short fluke that had to go back, but it served admirably in its ability to generate high fives and laughter. A few spots closer to the stern, Mark Thomas studied a sea robin he had just lifted aboard before flipping it over the side to the cheers and friendly jeers of his rail mates. In the stern starboard corner, Torborg showed that he could catch as well as organize, decking several shorts for high-hook status on the day—something I witnessed, but he never made known.
Back in the bow, Firefighter Ed Shaw, L135, revealed that he and Billy Tolley had been “mutual partners over the years,” meaning that they worked opposite shifts and coordinated with each other to arrange their schedules. The real point of this day, he stressed, was to give everyone a breather, to remember a good friend and fine person while possibly releasing some of the pain.
“Billy was the finest guy you could ever meet,” he said proudly. “He was a true leader; the kind of guy who stepped up without hesitation when he saw someone needed help or something needed to be done. He was smart, fun, thorough, kind, and liked to fish. Always smiling, he was the type of person we need more of in this world, no doubt about it.”
Up in the helm, Capt. Mike Wasserman chimed in with his support for the program. “It’s always a great group to have on board. These people do the right thing for all of us, so it’s a privilege to somehow be involved in giving back. It really seems like the kind of organization that can make a positive difference in people’s lives.”
The fishing was tough that day as the gusty winds teamed with a drastically low moon tide to keep the boat in bay waters under unfavorable drifting conditions. A few short fluke, several sea robins and a huge horseshoe crab made it over the rails, but all on board seemed to realize that catching really wasn’t the emphasis anyway.
Back in the bow, Bobby Tolley related how the firehouse crew had made him feel like part of their own family. “The love and support they’ve showed to me, and to Billy’s immediate family too, went a long way in helping us feel we are not alone. These people are wonderful—so full of kindness. I’m so happy they asked me to be a part of this special day.”
With that, he turned his head back toward the stern as the powerful roar of another Blue Angel pass roared across the bay. The jets, four abreast, were flying exceptionally low and speeding straight over the beam of the boat. As they passed, the front jet pulled up and veered away, leaving the others flying in a missing-man formation.
Bobby Tolley glanced back over his shoulder and shot me a smile. No words needed to be spoken.