Steve Belson Memorial Pays Tribute to a Rockaway Legend

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On Saturday, August 4, both longtime residents and day-trippers commemorated one of Rockaway’s legends at the 17th Annual Steve Belson Memorial Ocean Swim. Belson was a lifeguard for 10 years before joining the FDNY. During the September 11, 2001 attacks, he perished in his last act of service saving lives in the World Trade Center, an embodiment of his character.

Originally from Flushing, Belson began spending time in Rockaway during his mid-teens. He became a lifeguard at Beach 92nd Street, where he met former lifeguard and now event organizer, Sean Kellar. “There was always a healthy competition about who was better: who were better lifeguards, frankly who were better partiers, who could hold more beers than the next guy, but it was all in good fun,” Kellar said. “We had good parties together, good camaraderie, good lifeguard competitions for years in the ocean, and we had a fond love of rock and roll music.” Belson and his friends were often in the audience at Grateful Dead and Hot Tuna concerts. “We shared that passion and it was a fun time, it was a simpler time,” Kellar reminisced.

With a new stage of his life just beginning, Belson continued to lifeguard for 10 years while his name remained on the civil service list to become a firefighter. When his name was called, he joined the fire department at Ladder 24 in Manhattan. After a back injury on the job, Belson rehabilitated himself and returned to duty “when many people could have and would have retired at that point,” Kellar said. Soon after he resumed work, Belson was called to the World Trade Center on September 11. At 50 years old and after 22 years of service, Belson’s life was tragically cut short. To celebrate a life spent looking out for others, for 17 years, the Steve Belson Memorial Scholarship Fund has awarded lifeguards with $1,000 scholarships. On Saturday, many joined for the ceremony commemorating Belson’s life on the beach where Belson lifeguarded: Beach 92nd Street, since renamed Bell’s Beach in honor of the local hero.

Organized by Belson’s friends and fellow firefighters, John Mcguire, Pat Savage, and Sean Kellar, the inaugural event was supposed to be a one-time Bell’s Beach remembrance swim and Fort Tilden music festival in 2002. “I needed to channel my anger after September 11, 2001 and turn 2002 into something positive. That’s what got this whole thing started,” Kellar said. About turning his grief into goodness, Kellar explained that the plan was “to do something positive in Steve’s honor and that’s good for Rockaway, when Steve was a longtime Rockaway lifeguard, firefighter, and all around water guy.”

When more than 1,000 people attended, Belson’s mother proposed having the event again to continue remembering Belson and financially assisting lifeguards in college. This idea prompted the process of gaining status as a tax-exempt charity. Each year since, the scholarship fund has intentionally kept a low profile with no major sponsorships. According to Kellar, “We didn’t want any big corporations doing it, it’s all local donations and t-shirt sales.” And yet, the Steve Belson Memorial Scholarship Fund has been able to award 138 lifeguards with more than $140,000 over the past 17 years. “The lifeguards that had won the awards early on had firsthand memories of Belson and 9/11,” Kellar said. “Nowadays, most of the kids who are applying were born, but they were probably in diapers. Their experience with this is either from history books or in talking to their parents or neighbors.” The memorial swim serves as a method of raising awareness for younger generations as well.

This year, chosen by an anonymous selection committee, four Rockaway lifeguards were awarded $1,000 to help with college expenses. One of the winners, Amber Feerin, has been lifeguarding for five years in Breezy Point. On winning the award, Feerin said, “It feels great. It’s such a good event to have and I’m very honored.” Feerin plans on using the money she won for textbooks for school.

This year, the event’s usual half-mile swim was modified to a ceremonial dip in front of the 97th Street concession due to beach closures. On Sunday, Metropolitan Swim Masters participated in a one- and two-mile swim event as part of the Steve Belson Memorial Masters Swim, sponsored by U.S. Masters Swimming, Metro Division. Additionally, the music festival, usually held on the evening of the swim, will be held on September 28 instead.

“It has evolved somewhat over time but ultimately it’s about remembering a really good friend who didn’t want to be a hero and certainly didn’t want to be dead,” Kellar said. Before Saturday’s ceremony, Ladder 137 of the Beach 116th Street firehouse raised the American flag from their truck as many came to honor the life of Belson. Following the moving words of his commemoration speech, Kellar encouraged guests to “tap the railing [under the Belson plaque] three times: for life, liberty, and freedom, which do not come free.” Belson will always be remembered for paying for these things with the ultimate sacrifice.

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