Despite grey skies and chilly drizzle, thousands of fire service members and returning survivors offered support and comfort to loved ones of the 85 firefighters who were honored during the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend.
In his remarks, Chief Dennis Compton, Chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) Board of Directors, spoke about the traditions, culture, and history that define the fire service.
"All of us in the fire service realize we are members of a greater family. And we understand the need to take care of each other's loved ones when tragedy strikes," he said. "And remember that the Foundation is resolute in our service to you-the survivors. We are here for you, at any time."
Chief Ernie Mitchell, United States Fire Administrator, spoke about the unparalleled commitment of firefighters to aid their communities at any time. "These courageous men and women put their lives on the line as they willingly stand between the dangers of fire and those threatened by it with purpose, vision, determination, perseverance, integrity, and courage."
As the names of each firefighter were read, family members were escorted forward to receive a flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol and the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. They also received a red rose and a specially designed badge. Special tribute readings to the fallen were also shared.
W. Craig Fugate, Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, read a letter from President Barak Obama to the families. It said, in part, "Michelle and I want you to know that a grateful nation holds you in our hearts - not just today - but every day."
Video showed bells chiming from various locations around the country and at Kadena Air Force Base in Japan, where firefighter airman Derek Kozorosky, who was among those honored, died in February of 2011. Compton explained that the tribute was part of Bells Across America for Fallen Firefighters, a new tradition of the Memorial Weekend.
"Grateful citizens are pausing to honor their memory," he said to the survivors. "And at each of these events, they are also honoring you. For you are as much a hero as your firefighter."
For only the second time in the 31-year history of the Memorial Weekend, inclement weather forced the Sunday Memorial Service inside. Within less than 12 hours, the PNC Sports Complex at Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, was readied to receive the nearly 6,000 attendees.
Chief Compton thanked the university for its assistance in moving the service indoors on short notice. "The leadership of this university has always shown they understand the sacrifice made by our nation's firefighters. We could not have a better neighbor."
Due to the rain, video enabled the attendees to view Honor Guard laying the Presidential Wreath and unveiling the plaques bearing the names of the fallen at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. "From this day on, all who visit this Memorial will see the names of your firefighters," said Compton. "They will know that each name represents a loved family member, friend, and coworker who died while bravely serving their communities. They will think of you - the survivors."
Hal Bruno, Chairman Emeritus of the NFFF who died last November, was also honored. Chief Compton described Mr. Bruno's unwavering commitment to the Foundation's mission and emphasized that the staff and volunteers will continue to offer support to the survivors for as long as there is a need. A video montage of his life was shown while long-time friend, Michelle Lyn, sang Bruno's favorite hymn, "Precious Memories."
Following the Benediction by Father Thomas Mulcrone of the Chicago Fire Department, the Color Guard, Honor Guard, Pipers and Drummers slow and steady march to percussion created a melancholy rhythm. The timbre of bagpipes filled the room and gradually faded. The survivors filed out to begin a new phase of their lives knowing the NFFF will always be at their side.