Around sunrise, retired firefighter Tom “Bull” Hill can be seen slowly making his way around Lake Monroe along the Sanford Riverwalk. At first, he was alone. But others, like supporter Christine Buster, joined him after discovering the purpose of Hill’s training: a memorial walk from Boston to Ground Zero in New York City ending on Sept. 11.
“We are here to support Bull,” said Buster, owner of Buster’s Bistro in Sanford, Florida. “He is such a great guy, and he is doing this for his friends, even though it is sometimes difficult for him to walk.”
That’s what makes the upcoming 220-mile, 9/11 journey especially remarkable. Doctors told Hill he would never walk again after the former firefighter suffered two strokes.
A painful past
In the early 1990s, while on a job with the Orange County Fire Department in Orlando, lightning struck Hill, shattering his back.
“I didn’t even know the lightning had messed up my back that bad,” Hill said. “It just started hurting more and more, and a doctor finally told me that it looked like I’d had back surgery.”
The lightning bolt had fused Hill’s vertebrae together.
In 2018, after he retired from the fire department, Hill suffered two strokes, which required months of physical rehabilitation and left him with a pronounced limp. He also had double knee-replacement.
None of those limitations stopped Hill from fulfilling a promise he made to two of his firefighter brothers who were dying of cancer. His love for his friends was what inspired Buster to join in Hill’s training.
A promise made
Stephen “Shakey” Vanravenswaay and John “JP” Perez told Hill they weren’t afraid to die but were frustrated and hurt that they couldn’t provide better for their families who would be left behind.
On that day, despite how difficult it was for Hill to walk, he vowed to make a 650-mile hike through the state of Florida to get the attention of lawmakers. He walked slowly, with a noticeable limp, from Mile Marker Zero in Key West to the steps of the Florida Capitol. Hill believed it was time to pass a “Presumptive Cancer Bill” to help the families of fallen firefighters. Other states had a law; Florida did not.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), firefighters die of cancer at a higher rate than the general public. A presumptive cancer law makes firefighters eligible for benefits based on the presumption that their job was the cause of certain types of cancer.
A promise fulfilled
During his march from Key West to Tallahassee, Hill carried a backpack with 84 remembrances of first responders who had died of cancer, suicide, or in the line of duty. Shields and patches adorned the outside of the pack, honoring those who were unable to join the cause.
Hill’s journey got the attention of lawmakers. The bill was passed unanimously in the Florida House and Senate and was signed into law on July 1, 2019.
After that walk, Hill started the Firehood Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting firefighters and their families dealing with occupational cancer.
An expanded mission
Hill’s mission soon expanded to help those suffering from heart and lung disease, PTSD, and other mental health issues.
“Suicide is a huge concern among firefighters,” Hill said.
According to the CDC, firefighters are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty.
Hill organized more walks, carrying backpacks filled and covered with mementos given to him by families of the fallen. The sentimental reminders included name tags, helmet shields, patches, and precious ashes of several firefighters.
Others joined Hill on his walks, including firefighters and children. Many offered words of encouragement, and a few helped carry the packs to lighten Hill’s load.
“We came together and proved to ourselves that we can make a difference,” Hill said. “We are honoring those who gave us so much.”
In early 2021, Hill walked another 200 miles from the Florida-Georgia line north to Charleston, South Carolina. He wanted to raise awareness and support for his fellow firefighters, and he also wanted to help their families heal. Along the way he offered counsel and encouragement.
*8/25 Update: This walk has been postponed due to COVID-19. Stay tuned for updated plans.
On Aug. 22, Hill will leave Boston with friends and supporters to begin the journey he has been training for each morning. Along the way they will stop at fire stations where Hill plans to counsel firefighters and their families, arriving at Ground Zero in New York City on Sept. 11.
This will be the fourth long-distance walk organized by Hill since he made that promise to his brothers in 2018.
“More than 40 firefighters have gotten life-saving treatment since I started walking,” Hill said. “Also, widows and families of fallen firefighters have been able to get help and counseling to deal with the loss of their loved ones.”
“Sometimes our heroes need help,” Hill continued. “That is why I’m doing this.”
To follow Hill’s walk-a-thon to Ground Zero, go to www.thefirehoodfoundation.org. You can can also click here If you would like to donate to help him reach his $10,000 goal for the Foundation. Follow Hill is on Facebook at Bulls Fitpit and on Instagram at @thebullhill89.