More than a thousand mourners eulogized Baltimore firefighter Eric D. Schaefer yesterday as "one of the last American heroes," as an overflow crowd packed the same church where the young man married his childhood sweetheart less than three months ago.
A procession of firefighters from dozens of states and Canada marched several blocks down Harford Road as 50 fire engines lined the street, bagpipes wailed and onlookers strained to view the parade of mourners.
The flag-draped casket carrying Mr. Schaefer's body was carried from Ruck Funeral Home 17 blocks south to St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church on the back of Engine 23, which accompanied the Rescue 1 truck -- draped in a black cloth -- to which the firefighter had been assigned.
"He reflects what is best about this city," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told the 500 mourners who could fit inside the church in the 3600 block of Harford Road. Hundreds of others listened to the 90-minute Mass on speakers set up outside.
"He has touched our heart," the mayor added. "I know that the people of this city will honor him in their memories."
Mr. Schaefer, 25, died Saturday while fighting the eight-alarm Clipper Industrial Park fire in Woodberry when a two-story granite wall collapsed, trapping him and several other firefighters under a pile of rubble. Seventeen were injured; three remain hospitalized.
"There is nothing that one can say that can ease the pain in this room," said William V. Taylor, president of the Baltimore firefighters union. "Eric was a devoted firefighter who gave his all to the city of Baltimore -- one of the last American heroes."
Nowhere was that devotion more evident than on Harford Road in front of the church, which filled with firefighters and their wives two hours before the Mass. Fire trucks from dozens of communities across the state, from Frederick to Ocean City and Clinton to Bel Air, lined the street in tribute.
Firefighters from Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia attended -- their strong bond succinctly summed up by Tommy Thomas, a firefighter from New York, who simply said, "Same job, different city."
After the Mass, a two-block line of firefighters -- four deep -- walked to the head of the church to touch the coffin and pay their respects to the family -- a tribute that took 45 minutes to complete.
Most only knew Mr. Schaefer as a firefighter who had died. But it didn't matter. "It's a family," explained Brenda Meile, whose husband, Charles, has been a Baltimore firefighter for 39 years. "A member of our family has died."
Inside the church, family, friends and colleagues remembered Mr. Schaefer as a hard-working, fun-loving young man who raised peppers and tomatoes behind his Glenmore Avenue home, jumped out of airplanes in the Army National Guard and enjoyed collecting fish and snakes.
He was raised in Hampden and received the sacraments of baptism, first Communion and confirmation at St. Francis. He met his wife, the former Tina Robinson, while attending the church's grade school. They were married July 1.
Msgr. William F. Burke said he remembers the couple "standing side by side and face to face before this altar pledging their lives together." He warned that it is tough "to accept the painful truth that we have lost someone who matters so much."
Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. told those gathered, "Don't shed LTC tears for Eric today. He was doing what he wanted to do."
And the Rev. Kevin Farmer, one of the Fire Department's chaplains, said he has learned more about "family" from firefighters than from anyone else. The close bond that firefighters form, he said, is what Holy Communion is all about.
"Your community is the closest to living every single day what we have been trying to teach people for thousands of years," the priest said.
The mourners broke into applause when Father Farmer urged them to remember the injured firefighters, who he said "have been forgotten simply because they survived. I don't think Eric would want us to forget them today."
Mayor Schmoke then handed Mrs. Schaefer the flag that had been draped over the coffin. Sitting next to her were the firefighter's parents, Dorian and Suellyn, and his brothers, Todd, 22, and Chad, 16.
The night of the accident, while family members sat in shock at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, Mr. Schaefer's mother asked Capt. Joseph V. Brocato, who leads Rescue 1, if her son had died while saving someone from the fire.
"No, he didn't die saving a life," the captain recalled saying. "He gave his life saving a community of lives."
In the line of duty
Baltimore City firefighters killed in the line of duty since 1977
Capt. Frank J. Sappe, March 4, 1977
Emergency Vehicle Driver Joseph W. Bayne Sr., May 10, 1977
Firefighter Donald Knopp, March 25, 1979
Capt. Martin Kleinsmith, April 19, 1980
Firefighter Melvin S. Rosewag Sr., July 29, 1984
Lt. John T. Killian Jr., March 10, 1985
Lt. Nelson K. Taylor, Nov. 22, 1985
Lt. John Nolan Plummer, Jan. 27, 1994
Emergency Vehicle Driver Eddie Arthur, June 4, 1994
Firefighter Alton G. Warren, July 19, 1994
Firefighter Eric D. Schaefer, Sept. 16, 1995