By Steve Rubenstein – San Francisco Chronicle, March 12, 2015
The San Francisco firefighters who pull struggling swimmers from the Pacific Ocean were feeling quite toasty Thursday in their brand-new fire-engine-red wetsuits.
“This is great,” said firefighter Harry Higgins. “I can move my arms. And it’s really well insulated. I don’t have to wear any undies.”
Like other members of the water rescue unit, Higgins has been obliged to provide his own wetsuit, a cumbersome model designed for surfing and not swimming. On Thursday, the department received 40 hand-sewn, flexible swimmer’s wetsuits — a gift from the family of an aspiring firefighter who wanted to wear one and never did.
The members of the rescue unit, assembled at Ocean Beach, couldn’t wait to strip off their overalls and jump into them.
They practiced in the wetsuits by pulling two of their colleagues from the water in a training exercise. Higgins’ colleague Jesse Snyder, who also got one of the new suits, did some of the pulling.
“They look better than the old suits, too,” Snyder said. “And they’re red. So you can tell the rescuer from the victim. That’s important.”
The suits were donated by the family foundation of Peter Antonini, a 21-year-old San Franciscan who was about to enter the firefighter training academy when he collapsed and died while jogging on Ocean Beach in 2002. His parents, San Francisco Planning Commissioner Michael Antonini and his wife, Linda, were on the beach to hand over the wetsuits, worth about $300 each.
For the seaside ceremony, Linda Antonini wore a small replica of her son’s firefighter badge around her neck. Michael Antonini wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the SFFD academy class his son would have entered.
Their friend Joanne Hayes-White, the fire chief, thanked them for the donation, gave them a hug and said the suits “will save lives out here.”
The all-volunteer rescue unit is made up of 300 members working out of nine fire stations near the water’s edge. It was founded in 1986 after two firefighters jumped into the ocean in their boxer shorts to save a pair of swimmers and nearly perished themselves from the coldness of the water. Last year the unit took 170 rescue calls.
Fighting back tears, Linda Antonini said her son, who loved the ocean as much as he loved the Fire Department, would doubtless have joined the rescue unit and been wearing one of the new wetsuits.
“He knew what he wanted,” Linda Antonini said, gazing at the waves breaking along the shore. “He had it all together at 21. He was going to have five kids and a red truck.”