Annual Md. event seen as outlet for nation's grief

N.Y. loss to dominate firefighters' memorial

September 22, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The memorial service for fallen firefighters, held each October in Emmitsburg, pulls tears from the most stoic attendees. It's a ceremony of families, of brilliant yellow and red flowers, of crisp dress uniforms laced with gold and finished with snow white gloves and polished black shoes.

But this year's service will be even more heart-wrenching as a nation mourns the approximately 300 firefighters who died Sept. 11 when the burning World Trade Center towers collapsed on them.

Ceremonies will include a candlelight vigil Oct. 6 and a memorial chapel service Oct. 7. Before each segment of the memorial weekend, the event speaker will say a few words about the New York firefighters and invite a moment of silence, said Hal Bruno, chairman of the sponsoring National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

Bruno hopes President Bush, who had expressed interest in attending the memorial before the New York tragedies, will give the keynote speech Oct. 7.

"This was the greatest loss the American fire service has suffered in its long history," said Bruno, who called the attacks a setback for anyone who has ever grieved a fallen firefighter. "Nothing has ever come close."

The previous worst day for firefighter casualties was in 1946, when a ship exploded in Texas City, Texas, and killed 27. More New York firefighters died in the line of duty Sept. 11 than had died in the previous 20 years combined, according to the foundation. New York already has more names, 249, than any other state on the memorial plaques in Emmitsburg that list losses from 1981 to last year.

The New York Fire Department had no plans as of yesterday to send a contingent to this year's ceremony, said spokesman Jimmy Maguire.

"Right now, we just wouldn't know, you understand," Maguire said. "Give us a week or two maybe."

But foundation staffers, who arrange food and lodging for next of kin attending the ceremony, expect significantly more than the normal crowd of 5,000. They don't know how many more. "Probably thousands, that's what we're hearing," said Mary Ellis, the foundation's managing director.

Residents of Emmitsburg, which is about 55 miles northwest of Baltimore near the Pennsylvania border in Frederick County, say the town of about 2,000 gets crowded during the memorial weekend, but no one seems to mind.

"It's not any problem," said Chris Wilson, manager at the Ott House, a downtown pub favored by firefighters. "The town's overcrowded for a couple of days, and then they're gone. We enjoy seeing some of the familiar faces who come every year."

Ellis, another of the foundation's five full-time workers and a pack of part-timers and volunteers went to New York last week to begin connecting the families of dead and missing firemen with grief counselors and other support services.

"A lot of people want to help right now, but we wanted to offer help that will last three, four, five years," Ellis said.

Bruno called the aid package, requested by the New York Fire Department, "the Mount Everest of grief counseling."

Allstate and State Farm insurance companies and the federal Department of Justice have donated heavily to the memorial and the New York efforts, Bruno said. Major League Baseball star Mark McGwire also gave the foundation $150,000 to set up programs for the children of those lost in New York.

Beyond the moments of silence, the foundation hasn't decided exactly how it will honor those killed in New York.

Their names won't be engraved on plaques until the 2002 ceremony, but, "We will remember them," Ellis said.

This year's ceremony was slated to honor 101 firefighters from 39 states. The services occur around a 7-foot-high white stone surrounded by plaques, each listing the firefighter deaths in a given year.

The memorial site on the campus of the National Emergency Training Center also features a path of more than 3,000 bricks, each dedicated to a firefighter or firefighters, living and dead.

Bruno and Ellis emphasized that in recognizing the sacrifices in New York, they don't want to give short shrift to firefighters who died in other locations this year and last.

"When you get down to individual families, no one loss is greater than another," Ellis said. In addition to sponsoring the services, the nonprofit foundation, created in 1992 by Congress, offers scholarship money to survivors. Last year, it gave about $52,000 to 16 students.

"If all we did was put on the memorial, I wouldn't care about this as much," said Bruno, director of the Chevy Chase Fire Department and a longtime volunteer firefighter. "It's the work with the families that matters the most."

The foundation's Web site is www.firehero.org.

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