- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

About 4,000 people crowd into the small town of Emmitsburg, Md., each October for a memorial weekend to honor firefighters killed in the line of duty the previous year.
This year, the ceremony will be too big to be held at the town's National Fallen Firefighters Monument.
An estimated 20,000 mourners of the 344 firefighters who died after the September 11 terror attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the hundred or so more who died across the nation last year would tax the town of 2,100 to its limits. So the annual homage to firefighters will be moved to the District, some 60 miles away.
"The sheer numbers of firefighters being honored this year and the number of families, escorts, honor guards and fellow firefighters that will be attending the Emmitsburg campus can't handle that kind of crowd," says Hal Bruno, the chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters' Foundation.
Last year, the ceremony came not quite a month after the terrorist attacks. President Bush, who had committed to attending long before September 11, gave the keynote speech in front of 7,000.
"After last year's ceremony, we realized we faced a tremendous problem for this year," Mr. Bruno says.
The foundation decided to uproot its events and transplant them to the District for one year only.
"I think there was pretty much an understanding as far as the town was concerned," Emmitsburg Mayor William Carr says.
For this small monument and this small town, honoring firefighters is a year-round job.
In 1979, the federal government bought the 100-acre facility that used to be St. Joseph's Catholic College to house the National Fire Academy, the U.S. Fire Administration and offices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The National Fallen Firefighters Monument opened on the grounds of the campus in 1981 and was designated by Congress as the national monument to career and volunteer fallen firefighters in 1990. It is the only such monument in the nation.
Tucked into a walled corner of the federal facility, the monument is a 7-foot-tall stone pillar topped with a Maltese cross the symbol of the fire service.
In a semicircle around the monument, 30-by-24-inch plaques arranged by year contain the names of the 2,181 career and volunteer firefighters who have died in the line of duty since 1981.
At its base, an eternal flame burns.
When a firefighter dies in the line of duty which happens roughly once every three days in America the monument's flags fly at half staff for three days.
"In the [fire academy] classrooms, they say, 'It's a great day today The flags are up,'" former Pittsburgh Fire Chief Charlie Dickinson says.
Chief Dickinson was fire chief for 10 years. Now he is a senior adviser to the U.S. Fire Administration. Three men under his command died in the line of duty in 1995.
Before September 11, the biggest fire service disaster commemorated on the monument was represented by 14 names of firefighters who lost their lives in a single day in 1994 on Storm King Mountain in Colorado battling a wildfire.
FEMA spokesman Marko Bourne said September 11 transformed the monument, whose presence once was largely unknown outside the fire service.
People will come to Emmitsburg to "see the names of the New York firefighters," he says. "It took that incident to make this America's firefighting memorial."
Shops along Emmitsburg's main intersection sell T-shirts with fire service logos, paintings of firefighters and toy firetrucks.
At Emmitsburg's volunteer fire company, Vigilant Hose Co. No. 6, 55-year volunteer and former Fire Chief Sterling White opens a dirtied accountant's ledger to page 93. Each of the crisp pages has 40 lines filled with the names of visitors.
"I met firefighters from all over the country all over the world," he says. There are six more ledgers just like it in the closet.
In the past two weeks visitors have come from Kansas, Utah, Texas and Colorado. Digging deeper, Mr. White produces names from Japan, France, Indonesia and Ireland.
When the Ott House Pub opened in 1970 next door to the firehouse, it was a college hangout with an antique motif. In the two decades since the fire service moved to town, it has become an unofficial shrine to firefighters.
"It wasn't something that just happened overnight. It gradually changed," said Robert Ott, the owner's son.
The walls behind the bar, even the bar itself, are lined with thousands of colorful patches from fire companies around the country. During the memorial weekend, lines are out the door.
People beg to have their pictures, helmets, axes and badges displayed on the walls, displacing all but a few remaining antique lamps and statues.
Mr. Ott said it started when one firefighter from Boulder, Colo., gave him a patch shortly after the academy opened and asked him to pin it to the wall behind the bar. Mr. Ott humored him, knowing that firefighters rotate through the academy in two-week shifts. He planned to take it down, he said, but by the end of two weeks he had 50 more patches.
"It's gotten to a point where we can't take any more," he says, pulling 20 years of unsolicited patches from a drawer behind the bar, displaying them, and setting them on a counter. "I could stand here and hold patches up for days and we've got nowhere to put them."
Mr. Ott's niece, Lauri Harley, manages the pub.
"In the evenings it's all firefighters," she said. "They come here and talk about things they can't talk about at the academy."
Mrs. Harley said townspeople predicted the memorial service would be held elsewhere this year.
"We knew it was going to be moved," she says. "There was just no way."
Mr. White agrees, with no hard feelings.
"I can see the reason," he says. "It would be quite a battle to try to squeeze in so many."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide