Honoring fallen heroes

Memorial: As families travel to Emmitsburg to remember firefighters who died last year, the terrorist attacks give additional significance to the somber occasion.

October 07, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

If anybody outside of Maryland has heard of Emmitsburg, chances are it's because of an American saint, a Catholic college or a television nun. Unless they're firefighters.

Across the country, men and women who make their livings battling blazes know the small, north-central Maryland town as a place to sharpen their skills and mourn their fallen comrades.

The rest of the country is learning that, too, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which are lending special significance to an annual memorial held in Emmitsburg for firefighters killed in the line of duty.

President Bush will attend today's ceremony at the Fallen Firefighters' Memorial on the grounds of a former Roman Catholic college campus that's now home to the United States Fire Administration, its National Fire Academy and the Emergency Management Institute.

Bush's appearance will be a first for an American president after 20 years of invitations, organizers said. All of the national television networks and even the British Broadcasting Corp. are covering the event for the first time. FEMA will cover it live on its Web site.

While they ache over the tragedy that claimed the lives of more than 300 comrades last month, firefighters and their families are taking some solace in the recognition suddenly coming their way. An average of 100 firefighters die in the line of duty every year in America.

"Every third day, a firefighter loses his life in this country, and their loss is no less poignant and tragic than the loss of the firefighters in New York," said Marko Bourne, spokesman for the U.S. Fire Administration.

Frank Davis, chief of Emmitsburg's Vigilant Hose Co., called Bush's visit "quite an honor."

"The fire service always took the back seat to the police department. The president always attends the police memorial," he said. "We felt a little left out."

If firefighters feel as if they haven't always received their due from national leaders and the country as a whole, Emmitsburg (population 2,290) has been an oasis of gung-ho support.

The nation's most productive wheat-growing area in the early 19th century, and a thriving manufacturing and mill town after the Civil War, Emmitsburg saw its economic fortunes take a dive in 1880 when the Western Maryland Railroad decided not to build its line through the town, according to the Web site Emmitsburg.net.

Emmitsburg got a boost two decades ago, when the federal government bought the former St. Joseph's College campus for the Fire Administration, Fire Academy, the memorial site and Emergency Management Institute.

Thousands of firefighters and emergency services personnel take classes at the training academies each year, and thousands of families attend the annual Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend.

Gift shops in the brick buildings that line the town's Main Street sell all manner of firefighting souvenirs.

The town's main watering hole, the Ott House, attracts pilgrims as earnest as the ones who come to pray before the bones of a saint at the nearby National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Seton established the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph in Emmitsburg in 1809 and founded the first parochial school in the United States. In 1975, she was proclaimed a saint, a first for an American-born Catholic. The old television show, The Flying Nun, starring Sally Field, featured a fictional nun who belonged to Seton's order, and the show contained occasional references to Emmitsburg, said Wayne Powell, branch chief of mitigation for the United States Fire Administration.

At the Ott House, patches representing thousands of fire departments are tacked to the walls, displacing most of the antique clocks and other knickknacks that Bernard Ott originally decorated his business with 30 years ago. There are patches from every state in the union and foreign countries such as Germany, Tasmania, and Saudi Arabia.

And there are more personal mementos. After firefighters die, their families sometimes visit the Ott House and pin their department name tags to the wall. Stuck behind the bar is the tag once worn by Chief Robert Cole from Beacon Falls, Conn.

On the same wall is a framed Illinois license plate: 1 LTFPD. It belonged to Brian Thomas Hauk, assistant chief in Hanna City, who died in the line of duty on Dec. 23, 1997. His widow wanted the license plate to hang in the Ott House, even though her husband died before a much-anticipated visit to Emmitsburg.

"Her husband was really looking forward to coming to the Fire Academy. He was most excited about coming to the Ott House," said Susie Glass, 48, one of the Ott House owners.

"This is the hub," Art Cota of Sacramento, Calif., a fire training division chief for the state of California, said over an Ott House lunch and beer yesterday with firefighters from Wilson, N.C., and Quincy, Mass. "The city does a really great job of making you feel welcome."

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