ETCETERA - Walla Walla man gives 9/11 keepsake to fallen firefighter's family

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The sale of Mary Tennant's Walla Walla home in 2003 set off a chain of events that ultimately reunited a grieving family with an object that had belonged to their son.

Arnie and Rosemary Roma's son, firefighter Keith Roma, was killed while rescuing people from the twin towers in New York City after the terrorist attack on 9-11.

This journey started when Mary gave son Chad funds from the sale of her home to go explore. Subsequently, while in Cancun, Mexico, Chad made friends with a young woman from Connecticut, Mary said. Then while connecting with her back East, Chad happened to be at ground zero for the second 9-11 anniversary observation. The New York Times photographed Chad in a crowd there and placed that photo on page one of the Friday, Sept. 12, 2003, issue.

Later that day, as Chad walked near Rockefeller Center, he spotted firefighters in their dress blues. "Wow," he thought, "they're like super heroes." He asked to photograph them and they invited him in for some food at Fire Station 2.

For nine hours, Chad listened to their stories about being in the World Trade Center towers in 2001. Some of those rescuers barely survived when the towers and all their precious cargo crumbled into the earth after hijackers slammed airliners filled with passengers into their sides.

Chad rubbed shoulders with author Ann Rule at the station, too. Firefighters at Station 2 fed Chad lunch and dinner. They wore T-shirts that said, "Remember Keith Roma," and Chad asked if he could buy one.

Instead, they gave Chad a baseball cap that had NYFP No. 2 ¬?on its brim. The New York Fire Patrol cap was the last thing Keith had doffed before putting on his firefighter's gear and helmet.

Keith made four trips into the North Tower to rescue groups of people. The fourth time he went in, he didn't return, Chad said.

Once Chad came home to Walla Walla, he placed Keith's cap in a clear, sealed case with a plaque indicating who its owner was and where it came from. He gave the memento to Walla Walla Fire Station 1 on 12th Avenue.

At precisely 9:11 a.m. on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack, Chad woke up, and realized where the cap belonged.

He told his story to a newspaper reporter on Staten Island, N.Y. Coincidentally, this reporter had interviewed Keith's parents, Arnie and Rosemary, and so she told them where Keith's cap was.

Arnie telephoned Chad about a week later. In their discussion, Chad learned that Arnie had been a N.Y.C. police officer for 30 years, then became a firefighter. He was in the South Tower when son Keith was in the North Tower on that devastating day.

For many months firefighters, police officers and volunteers sifted through the wreckage, combing the site for anything that might have belonged to the victims.

And Arnie was among them, seeking something, anything that belonged to his son.

On a Christmas Eve, someone found Keith's firefighter helmet 10 feet from where Arnie was standing, Chad said.

Chad bought a new case for Keith's cap, sent it to the Romas and called them the day it arrived -- at the moment they were opening the box. He plans to revisit ground zero in spring 2012 and expects to visit with the Romas, completing the tale of two hats, both which belonged to one hero.

"Had I not sold my home, Chad would never have gone to Cancun or to New York City. Everything happens for a reason and in its own time," Mary said. "I never understood why I sold my home, until now."

The care package Chad put together from Walla Walla included pens, patches, T-shirts, hats and other things that came from the Washington State Patrol, Walla Walla Police and Fire departments, the Walla Walla Sheriff's office and from Washington State Penitentiary, where his dad had worked.

The Romas received the combined gift on Veterans Day, 11-11-11.

"I've become friends with this guy and plan to meet him," Chad said about Arnie.

Chad is cellar master at Walla Walla Vintners, and his boss, Gordy Venneri, donated hats and books about the Walla Walla Valley and wine industry and a wine bottle opener to go in the care package. Chad sent the Romas Thanksgiving and Christmas cards and an "in remembrance of your son" card, too.

Chad graduated in 1991 from Walla Walla High School, the year he was a state wrestling champ. He attended Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake on a wrestling scholarship. He now serves as an umpire for high school baseball.

"That hat came all the way across the country to Walla Walla," Chad said. "Arnie was appreciative as to the caring of people here about 9-11 and dumbfounded by how far the hat had traveled and now it's back home and in his trophy case."

"I was 27 when I received the hat and Keith was 27 when he took it off. Now I'm 38, same age as his son. I just want to help their family out. Help them get a little closure."

•••

David Counts, a 2001 Prescott High School alum, earned his master's in physician assistant studies and graduated Aug. 13, 2011, from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., where he received an Academic Excellence Award. In 2006 he earned bachelors' degrees in communication and psychology from Washington State University.

Physician assistant school was a 27-month commitment, David said. The first 12 months was classroom work studying medicine and the next 15 months was clinical rotations where he saw patients in various inpatient and outpatient settings in clinics and hospitals around the country.

"I chose the P.A. route because of the opportunity to practice medicine without committing several additional years to school. I admire the teamwork with physicians that is required as well as the flexibility of the P.A. career."

The son of Dan and Becky Counts of Walla Walla is employed as a P.A. at Geneva Health Center and Urgent Care Clinic in Beaverton, Ore.

"As a physician assistant I practice medicine under the supervision of a physician. This includes gathering a patient history, performing a physical exam, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, diagnosing illness and injury and developing treatment plans including the prescribing medications," David said.

His current work is in a clinic setting where he sees mostly urgent care/walk-in patients as the sole healthcare provider and consults with a collaborating physician by telephone as needed.

David and wife Holly Robinette Counts married five years ago. Holly just earned her master's of music in vocal performance in August from Portland State University.

She recently recorded a role for the new opera "Valentine" and will perform with the Heretic Opera Nov. 27 in Portland. She also teaches private voice and piano lessons.

•••

Allen Mullins reminds me somewhat of fictional character Forrest Gump, the Army veteran who ran across America several times.

Except that Allen has a stated mission. He is covering the nation on foot, sometimes in the guise of Superman, sometimes as Captain America, to address the needs of soldiers who are returning home after defending our freedoms abroad.

He feels so strongly about it, the Dalton, Ga., native sold his home and land and gave up his work as a carpenter.

He's devoting 10 years to this process, covering the terrain in various ways. One trek is intended to visit all capital cities in the lower 48 states.

Some local folks may have seen Allen when he was in Walla Walla Nov. 3 and 4, decked out in an iconic red, white and blue Captain America ensemble, toting a large flag in one hand and a shield in his other.

Dayton resident Daergan E. Guy said, "I think what he is doing is a moving account of what one person can do to change our world."

Allen has a Facebook page and has been captured on YouTube videos during his progression in 2010 when he aimed to visit every state capital east of the Mississippi. He started his current trek on Jan. 15, 2011, and with 38 western state capitals under his belt, he was headed to Olympia, Daergan said.

While Allen was in town, Daergan, a musician and owner-operator of Black Grass Records in Dayton, busked with his guitar on Main Street to raise some money for Allen. Daergan said Allen doesn't solicit money, rides or shelter, just raises awareness about homeless veterans.

The costumes are a gimmick to get people's attention, Allen said in various interviews. Regular clothes and a backpack don't cut it.

He says people can show their gratitude to veterans, thank them for their service, by offering to buy a homeless person a pair of shoes or a pair of pants. His former boss, a Vietnam War veteran, inspired Allen by turning around the lives of 100 other vets.

A Jan. 23 article on KBTX.com reports that one out of every four homeless people we see is probably a veteran, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Vets. An estimated 154,000 veterans are living on the streets, the report said.

Allen, 28 at the time of the report, said "A lot of people -- they don't know what they can do or where to start, ... but the thing is you use a little imagination and a little bit of heart and show some love. It figures it out for you as you go."

He started this mission Jan. 5, 2009, and expects to keep going until 2020. For more details, contact Allen at supermanwalking@gmail.com

•••

Over three weeks this past July, John and JeanAnn Mitchell of Milton-Freewater caught up with a former Rotary youth exchange student of theirs in Germany.

The Mitchells spent time with Peter Lubert, who hails from Berlin. They served as a host family for Peter when he attended school in our area in 2002-03. He's currently continuing his education and lives southwest of Berlin. The couple has also hosted other exchange students.

The Mitchells talked about trip highlights in a presentation to members of the Milton-Freewater Rotary Club on Nov. 8.

With Peter, the Mitchells toured art galleries, museums and historical sites. They also visited Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, the security gate between East and West Berlin. Only a portion of the Berlin Wall that divided the city during the Cold War still exists as a reminder.

The Mitchells walked along a cobblestone trail that replaced the rest of the wall. They visited Dresden, where 90 percent of the city center was destroyed in World War II during intense allied bombing in 1945. They marveled at reconstruction efforts as many of its historic buildings have been rebuilt.

They told Rotarians that events with Peter's family were especially rewarding, including many meals and trips to parks and scenic areas around the region.

Etcetera appears in daily and Sunday editions. Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at annieeveland@wwub.com or 526-8313.

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