Good thing Save the Manatees didn't call. Otherwise Tom Murphy, who has spent the last week-and-a-half in Nashville as a roving volunteer — gutting water-plagued homes and buildings and otherwise donating his time for strangers — might not have trudged southward to help abate our misfortune.
When he retired as a captain from the Jersey City Fire Department in January after 28-plus years of service, Murphy got on the computer and signed up to volunteer with organizations all over the world: The United Nations, Haiti recovery and, yes, Save the Manatees. "You know, with the oil," Murphy says, with that trademark New Jersey cadence and shrug of the shoulders, by way of explanation.
"I was never in the military, and I felt like this was my way of giving back — I could volunteer. That's the new American army — the volunteer — 'cause everybody's broke, nobody has money. People just have to do the right thing."
Murphy, who spent most of his career working fire investigations, heard about the flood on TV and immediately decided he wanted to lend a hand. Within hours of registering with Hands On Nashville, the nonprofit through which the city is mobilizing volunteer efforts, he was on a Greyhound bus in Newark headed for Nashville. Ten stops and 24 hours later, he was deposited at the bus station on Eighth Avenue South, a willing body in a disaster-ravaged city.
He eventually made his way to ArtHouse Gardens, an East Nashville business that's been marshaling teams of volunteer workers, before being tapped by the Nashville Firefighters Local 140 union to help the 26 Nashville firefighters and their families who were displaced by the flood.
"Everybody's hurting, and they want to do something," Murphy says. "It's not just about helping the person who lost their home. It's about helping the person who wants to help. I think people need that."
That's certainly how he felt on Sept. 11, 2001, after he watched from across the river as, one after the other, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center towers. As people emerged from Manhattan Island, shocked and covered in powdered debris, many of them made their way to the firehouse where Murphy worked. That night, he took home a family — the two children were slightly younger than his own — who'd been displaced by the attack, only to be called back to work shortly thereafter on a double homicide investigation.
"It worked out good for my wife and kids, because while I was gone that night they had somebody to help," he recalls. "It's the same here. If you work at a scene, and you take a second look at the people, they feel like it's therapy for them. ... It sounds a little selfish, but it's good for me. This is what I need."
The feeling seems to be mutual.
The flood brought 11 feet of water into Nashville firefighter Brent Weatherly's Kingston Springs home, where the paint was barely dry on a $55,000 addition. "Any help we can get right now is appreciated," he tells the Scene.
At this point, the best forms of help are labor and money, most organizers seem to agree.
"We're reaching out to the other local firefighter unions across the country to make a donation or do whatever they can do to help," says Mark Young, first vice president at Nashville's Local 140, who's coordinating fundraising and other contributions. "Our goal is to get the families who were affected back in their homes and not have to spend any money out of their own pocket. It's a big goal, and monetary donations are going to be the big thing."
As for Murphy, he says he may be here for a month, or as long as he's useful. In the meantime, someone should volunteer to take him to the Station Inn or something.
"I haven't heard any music," he says, "just the sound of people grunting and pulling out drywall."
To help Nashville firefighters, make a donation at www.IAFF140.org.