Fallen heroes honored by families at memorial

Ceremony: Relatives from 36 states remember their loved ones at Emmitsburg's Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park.

October 06, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG -- Shirley Waybright swallowed hard as a folded American flag was placed in her hands.

The name of her son -- Andrew J. Waybright -- had just been called over the public address system, words piercing the brisk morning air and reverberating through a crowd of 5,000 at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park.

It was 15 months ago when Andrew, 23, collapsed during a summer morning run in his third day of training for the Frederick County Department of Fire/Rescue Services. He died from hyperthermia, prevented from fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional firefighter after serving as a volunteer with the Harney Volunteer Fire Company and as a paid emergency medical technician in Taneytown.

Andrew Waybright's name was one of 105 inscribed at the memorial park yesterday during a somber ceremony to commemorate the nations' firefighters who died in the line of duty last year and some in earlier years.

Families from 36 states joined this small community south of Gettysburg, Pa., to participate in a weekend of activities, culminating in the ceremony yesterday during which each received a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol and a rose pulled from a Maltese cross, the firefighters' badge of honor.

"I'm glad we came," said Shirley Waybright, walking with her husband, James, president of the Harney department, and two sons after the event. "I'm sorry we had to be here."

Since the memorial's construction in 1981 on the campus of the National Emergency Training Center, 2,732 firefighters have died while on duty in the United States. Yesterday marked the return of the ceremony to Maryland; it was held in the MCI Center in Washington last year when 347 New York firefighters who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were commemorated.

That tragedy elevated the public image of firefighters, said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who delivered the keynote address yesterday.

"Hero is a title they would never claim. We know that. They would say, `I'm just doing my job,'" Ridge said.

But "firefighter is a job that has hero written all over it," Ridge continued. "It takes courage to plunge into a burning building when everybody else is running out. ... It is a job that is always perilous. A job that only a very few can do."

The roster of those memorialized yesterday reflected how dangerous and varied the profession can be, and how tightly woven firefighters are into the communities in which they serve.

Of the 99 firefighters killed last year, nine were from California and seven were from Oregon -- the highest totals among states. Many of them perished while fighting forest fires, some in air-tanker or helicopter crashes.

Other firefighters were killed during automobile accidents on their way to calls, in building collapses or while trying to rescue their colleagues.

David Paulison, head of the U.S. Fire Administration, said it was his goal to "one day have no new families at this memorial."

Last year, Maryland lost two firefighters. In addition to Waybright, David M. Turney, 50, a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Oakland Volunteer Fire Department died May 6 when he suffered a heart attack after returning from a hazardous materials call.

A 12-year mayor of Mountain Lake Park in Garrett County, Turney was a volunteer department member for 26 years, and belonged to the Southern Garrett Rescue Squad for 27 years.

The families of Turney, Waybright and scores of others also came together Saturday for grief counseling sessions and a tear-filled candlelight memorial service.

"It helped deal with the grief," Shirley Waybright said of the counseling session. "It's been difficult."

Audra Bruggerman, the daughter of former Russell City, Kan., Fire Chief Earl M. Hemphill, said she was glad she traveled hundreds of miles for the event.

Bruggerman's father was killed after being struck by a firetruck after its brakes failed.

Attending the event "gave you a different perspective on things, realizing you're not the only one who lost someone," she said.

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