Weekend highlights `brotherhood' of firefighters

Because larger number killed last year, tribute moved to Washington

October 07, 2002|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They came from far and wide: Boise, Idaho, and Houston; Belgrade, Mont., and Bibb County, Ga.; even Anchorage, Alaska.

And, of course, they came from New York.

Thousands of firefighters and families paraded yesterday in Washington to honor the 446 firefighters who died last year. Much of the event focused on the 343 who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

Led by a procession of fire department honor guards from throughout the country, more than 30 buses carried relatives of the dead firefighters down Constitution Avenue yesterday morning, ending up at the MCI Center. There, at a memorial service, speakers, including Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, celebrated the courage of the firefighters and their families.

"Since Sept. 11, the country has recognized that in its midst, it has some humble heroes," Ridge said. "Spouses and children of first-responders wear a uniform, too."

The parade and service were the climax of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend, which usually takes place in Emmitsburg at the National Fire Academy. But because so many firefighters died last year, the ceremony was moved to Washington.

Many noted the intense bond between firefighters as the reason for attending.

"Each of us knows that every time we go on a call, we're taking a risk. And we know we have to trust each other with our lives. So when one of us dies, we take it personally," said Chaplain Les Anderson of the Belgrade Fire Department. Eight members of the department's honor guard made the trip from the Montana town of 6,000, which is about 50 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.

"It's a brotherhood," said Capt. Terry Crawford of the Houston Fire Department, "and we'll do anything for a brother. I have one blood brother -- but I have a million real brothers."

For family members, the event was a way to remember loved ones. "He was the greatest kid alive," said Irene Spear of her son Robert, a New York firefighter who died Sept. 11. She wore an FDNY T-shirt and a locket with her son's photo.

"I feel very close to him when I'm with firefighters," she said.

Some brought children. Standing inside the MCI Center, holding her 6-month-old son, Scott, Pam Howard said she wants him to grow up knowing about his father, Clifford White. A member of the Cameron Volunteer Fire Department in West Virginia, White, 21, died Nov. 19 when his truck, rushing to a brush fire, crashed.

Many family members said they relish being with those who know the firefighting life from the inside. "It means a lot to be with people who understand," said Arlene Tipping-Cestari, whose brother, New York firefighter John J. Tipping II, died Sept. 11.

Before the parade began, firefighters from throughout the country mingled along Constitution Avenue, talking quietly. Sunlight glinted off badges and buttons, and the crisp air echoed with stirring tones, as bagpipe and drum units practiced. FDNY Engine 73 from the South Bronx was one of the main attractions.

Firefighters waited to get their pictures taken in front of the gleaming truck.

For the New York firefighters, the day was particularly poignant. Lt. Craig Silvino said dozens of his friends died Sept. 11. "Every time you go to a parade or a firehouse function, you think of people who aren't going to be there," said Silvino.

Silvino tried to explain why the events of Sept. 11 had tightened the firefighters' bond: "These guys, they would have done the same thing that we did that day," he said, gesturing to the non-New Yorkers crowding around Engine 73. "It's just that it didn't happen in their town."

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