|Updated September 25, 2016 9:26 PM|
By David M. Schwartz
Nearly 15 years after Donato Panico loaded up a food truck and drove to Ground Zero on Sept. 12, 2001, to feed search and rescue workers, he wanted to show his appreciation again for first responders. So he made sandwiches. Lots of them.
Panico gave away more than 3,000 3-foot-heroes to firefighters, police and veterans on Long Island and New York City between Sept. 10 and 12 this year with the help of friends and his employees at Panico’s Community Market in Smithtown.
Long Island and New York City police unions Sunday presented Panico with plaques thanking him at a ceremony in front of the store, complete with pipe bands and elected officials.
The sandwiches went to patrol squads in New York City, Nassau and Suffolk, as well as firehouses and veterans.
“The Panico family said before you go on patrol, take a bite of this. That means an awful lot to us,” said NYPD PBA president Patrick Lynch, adding that every patrol precinct had sandwiches. “That’s how the average citizen feels about police officers. They support them. They understand what each and every officer does.”
Suffolk PBA president Noel DiGerolamo said, “It’s people like them who remind us how important it is to be out there, protecting people.”
Panico, 48, of Smithtown, said “There are so many great people in this neighborhood who want to help, but their hands are tied. This is a small thing.”
He first decided last year to again show his appreciation for first responders by giving out a few hundred sandwiches on Sept. 11. It came amid growing protests over police shootings and deaths of black men and a backlash against law enforcement.
Panico said he wanted to rekindle the feeling of unity and support the country had in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, when he cooked from the mobile catering truck for 10 days at the World Trade Center site.
Friends urged him to grow the effort to serve every police officer, firefighter and veteran he could. Friends, workers, and random volunteers from Smithtown — the veterinarian across the street and the girl’s field hockey team — all came to help make sandwiches. Bread was donated from Lakewood Bakery in Farmingdale and Prestano’s Bakery in Selden. Yellow Top Farms, a wholesaler based in Bohemia, donated lettuce and tomatoes.
There were American and Italian subs.
“Then we cleaned house with every cold cut we had. It was all gone,” said Nicky Morreale, who was also involved in the effort.
On Sept. 10, they loaded two refrigerated trucks for the FDNY and drove into the city. On the 11th, they delivered subs to local fire departments, veterans hospitals and veterans halls. On the 12th, police officers picked up heroes at the Smithtown store and brought them to precincts in Suffolk, Nassau and New York City.
Panico said the group plans to serve turkey dinners to as many veterans in need as they can find this Thanksgiving. The group has filed paperwork to start a nonprofit, Heros 4 Heroes, said Joe Smith, one of the co-founders with Panico.
“Now that I know how many volunteers I have, let’s see what we can do,” Panico said.