Numbers overwhelm tradition

Firefighters turn out for comrades' services, but they're spread thin

Out-of-town volunteers fill in

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 27, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - The city's beleaguered firefighters have seen an outpouring of money, flowers and touching memorial notes for their fallen colleagues, but right now they have a tragically ironic need:

Volunteers to go to the funerals.

"There are so many funerals that we just cannot make them all," said firefighter Charles Carrington, standing outside the Engine Company 8, Ladder Company No. 2 fire station on East 51st Street, which has lost 10 men, including a battalion chief.

"The dimensions of this tragedy are so great that we need people to come forward and give their support, their visible support at these memorial services," said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the Fire Department's Jewish chaplain. "We have a day in which you can have three or four services going on simultaneously, and obviously one person can't attend them all."

The people most wanted are those in uniform from visiting, nearby and volunteer fire departments. When a firefighter dies in the line of duty in New York, the funeral is typically an impressive citywide display of solidarity, with well over half of the 11,000-strong force in attendance, plus visiting contingents of firefighters from cities around the nation and from other countries. The total uniformed presence can approach 10,000 and can appear to stretch on for a mile.

But with 343 firefighters missing or dead, there are funerals and memorial services nearly every day - more than 30 so far in less than two weeks, with at least four scheduled for tomorrow in four different cities. With so many services, and with firefighters serving long shifts, it's impossible for thousands to show at every one.

"For the [visiting firefighters] that are here, we really can't use them on site, but we could use them if they had their uniforms or company jacket, they could go to the funerals," said Lt. Charles H. Marsh. "It would be a big help for a little bit stronger presence at the funerals, a little more support for the families, for what we're really more accustomed to a line-of-duty funeral being like. Because there are so many and we're stretched so thin."

On Tuesday, with only one publicized memorial service in the morning, roughly 500 uniformed men showed up in the rain to honor 31-year-old Gregory T. Saucedo. They formed an impressive wall of formal colors more than a block long, four and five deep, as they saluted the grieving loved ones toward the end of a two-hour ceremony. The turnout was more than some expected, but far less than firefighters would like.

"One consolation to the family is the enormous turnout, showing how people care, and these things, they're not getting there," said firefighter Jim Kelly, 38, who lost his brother, an employee of the trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald, in the World Trade Center attack. "They know we care, but it's kind of sad because you're just not getting the people there."

In the case of Saucedo, a 10-year veteran who is missing and presumed dead, firefighters also encountered a quandary: With no body, it's not a formal funeral. For a force that is accustomed to the sad but time-honored tradition of saying a wordless goodbye to a casket, the memorial service leaves nagging questions.

As a firefighter who attended Saucedo's service put it, what if they find a body part? Will there also be a funeral? It's the kind of gruesome question that these men had never before had to ponder.

Saucedo was one of 11 firefighters lost from his Greenwich Village firehouse. Seven of them have been buried in funerals where the attendance averaged in the hundreds instead of the thousands.

"It's just not what you normally see at a funeral," said Gerard L. Redmond, 37, a nine-year veteran firefighter who served with Saucedo in Ladder Company No. 5. Redmond said the smaller numbers gave him an "empty" feeling, but he wasn't disappointed.

"You're glad to get what you get, you know? Some guys are going from one to another," he said.

The firefighters who made it to Saucedo's service included some who were working, like Kelly, who was able to make it from his Brooklyn fire station, fellow uniformed officers from other agencies in the city and state, and a few out-of-state visitors who had come to town to volunteer, like Rick Bonk of Illinois.

Bonk, 39, is a firefighter for the Carol Stream Fire Protection District, a small suburban Chicago force. He flew in Monday with his brother-in-law, a Chicago firefighter. They brought gear to work at Ground Zero, but they also brought dress uniforms for days like Tuesday.

As part of a statewide honor guard in Illinois, Bonk attends funerals throughout the state, usually one every two or three months, not one a day like now. With what he called a "shocking" number of men lost, he considers what each service accomplishes.

"It's closure, but with the scale [of losses], I don't know if that's accurate anymore," Bonk said, then correcting himself quietly: "I know how accurate that is."

In town until tomorrow, he'll go where he's needed.

"It's an extended family," said Bonk. For the fallen firefighters' loved ones, he said, any extra presence helps: "It's immeasurable. It's got to help. Not today, [but] down the road, to know that they were there to say goodbye to a brother."

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