Van Nesters question school renaming

Many officials, local parents and residents are all set to name the new school that opens soon on Bronxdale Avenue after two fallen firefighters that lost their lives on January 24, 2005. But if a handful of outspoken Van Nest residents have a say, the school will be renamed after a local hero who died on a different date — September 11, 2001.

The idea comes from Joe Bombace, member of Community Board 11, but is being backed by the Van Nest Neighborhood Alliance. VNNA vice president Bernadette Ferrara, along with president Pirtam Shradhanand, is leading the charge in supporting Bombace’s effort.

“Personally I love the idea,” said Ferrara. “We should have had some say in naming it all along.”

The plan to name the school after FDNY lieutenant Curtis Meyran and firefighter John Bellow seemed relatively concrete after Community Education Council 11 gave an advisory vote in favor of the renaming on Wednesday, April 28. The two died in a fire on East 178th Street in January, 2005. The tragedy, which became known as Black Sunday, was written about in a massive 2007 New York Magazine feature by Robert Kolker called “No Way Out.” But those fighting the naming feel strongly that because the school is in Van Nest, it ought to be named after a Van Nest hero.

And they found one. Their Van Nest hero is Chief James A. Romito, who had been working for the Port Authority of New York for nearly 30 years and was killed on 9/11 while trying to rescue civilians from the World Trade Center. “Look, my heart goes out to those firemen that lost their lives in the Black Sunday fire,” said Bombace. “But name a school after them down where they lost their lives, in the South Bronx.”

Romito is indeed local. He graduated from St. Dominic School in 1964, and his family still lives in Country Club today. Bombace knew Romito as a child. “The last time I saw him was at a class reunion in 1993,” he said. His class year from St. Dominic was 1965, but Romito’s class of 1964 invited him to their reunion.

“I did not know him personally,” said Ferrara, “but he’s a person from the community. This is called the Van Nest School, and this honorable hero was brought up on Garfield Street, right around the corner.”

Ferrara said, “It’s not a done deal. The principal hasn’t even walked through the school yet to look at the classrooms. The school is still being built.” Ferrara noted that she would have been happy to have the school remain “The Van Nest School,” but as long as it’s going to bear someone’s name, they feel it should be a local.

Councilman James Vacca says that at this point, the new idea simply came too late. The families of the two men have already been told that it will happen, and were extremely grateful and happy to hear it. “I’m not going to hurt those families,” said Vacca, who went on to say that he would be willing to name something just as significant in the Van Nest community after Romito.

“What came first, the chicken or the egg?” asked Bombace. “Meaning, January 24, 2005, or September 11, 2001? You gotta give respect where it’s due.” The next step in the process, according to Bombace, will be a plea to Vacca and other elected officials to reconsider the plan and open up a general forum on renaming the school.

Monica Major, president of Community Education Council 11, concurs with Vacca: it’s too late. “The naming of schools falls under the CEC’s jurisdiction, and in every instance we go to the community and ask for their input. I myself went to meetings and told the community this was happening. People had every opportunity to attend the meeting and make a suggestion. So I feel it’s very unfortunate that now, when the process is pretty much over and done, people would try to reopen the discussion. As far as I’m concerned, the new idea is just a rumor.” Major also noted they have already ordered the letters for the outside of the building. In addition, she isn’t pleased with the vocal opposition. “This reflects poorly on our community,” she said. “These firefighters served the borough, it’s not like they didn’t help this community. The issue should be closed.”

Bombace and the others involved in the Romito quest remain determined: “We’re keeping up this fight,” he said.

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