Bells have long been a cherished part of the firefighting tradition. Long before the invention of the radio or even the telephone, bell systems were used to signal firefighters throughout the day. The bell of the firehouse was rung to signify the beginning of a new shift, or to call members of a particular fire department to their station. When a fire occurred, the bells of the fire alarm telegraph system would be rung a specific number of times to indicate the precise location of the fire. These telegraph system bells were also used to call for backup if a particular fire department needed support in putting out a fire.
While the tolling of bells has been a part of firefighters’ lives for hundreds of years, there is one specific ring that no firefighter has ever wanted to hear. Three sets of five tolls, each set apart from the others by a short pause, has been the universal signal that a firefighter has fallen in the line of duty.
The somber fifteen tolls of the bell sounded in Emmitsburg once again during the 34th National Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend. During the weekend of October 3-4, 2015, hundreds of family members, friends, and fellow firefighters came to Emmitsburg to honor eighty-seven heroes who had died in the line of duty—eighty-four of whom had lost their lives in 2014.
The weekend was comprised of two major events: a candlelight service on October 3, and the official National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service on October 4. Both events were set to take place at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park on the grounds of the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg; however, inclement weather forced both events to be moved indoors.
The candlelight service on October 3 was held inside the Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. The evening service, which was closed to the public, provided a comforting and serene atmosphere for families and friends to mourn their loved ones. Throughout the service, musical pieces were performed, tributes were read, and prayers were offered in honor of the fallen firefighters. All the while, the names and faces of the eighty-seven fallen heroes were displayed on a projector for all to see.
The centerpieces of the candlelight service were eighty-seven luminarias that were placed along the altar rails. Prior to the event, families and friends created and decorated a small luminaria for each of the eighty-seven fallen firefighters. Many of the luminarias were decorated with stickers and drawings, and each featured a portrait of a fallen firefighter. These luminarias remained lit throughout the candlelight service, casting a warm light upon all who were gathered.
An eighty-eighth luminaria stood above the others in front of the altar, to honor the sacrifices of all fallen firefighters. Tamie Rehak Vjotesak of Virginia, whose husband died in the line of duty in 2002, lit the honorary luminaria midway through the event.
“It is a traditional Hispanic custom to display luminarias on the eve of an important event,” said Rehak Vjotesak. “On the eve of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service, we display these lighted tributes in honor of the eighty-seven heroes that we honor and remember.”
The light of the honorary luminaria was then ceremoniously passed to all gathered at the event. Gail Fowler of New York, whose husband died in the line of duty in 1997, carried the light in the form of a small electric candle. She touched the light of her candle to others, who turned on their electric candles and passed on the light in a similar manner.
The candlelight service concluded with the performance of a new song, written this year and performed by singer/songwriter David Carroll. Entitled “The Fallen and the Brave,” the song drew on Carroll’s experience as a volunteer firefighter.
Several times throughout the service, members of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) thanked the Daughters of Charity and the Rev. Frank Sacks for providing a location to hold the candlelight service.
“On behalf of the foundation, I would like to thank the Daughters of Charity and recognize Father Frank,” said Chief Dennis Compton, chairman of the board for the NFFF. “They offered their assistance immediately and in a genuine display of compassion . . . we could not ask for a better neighbor.”
For the memorial service on October 4, all proceedings were moved from the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to Mount St. Mary’s Knott Arena in the PNC Sports Complex. The service, which began at 10:00 a.m., was open to the public.
The memorial service began with a tolling of bells and a procession of flags led by the honor guard and the pipes and drums. The American flag and the NFFF flag were processed in first, followed by the flags of the fire departments that lost firefighters. At the end of the procession, active duty firefighters carried a folded flag for each of the eighty-seven fallen firefighters.
Following the flag procession, the national anthem, and the pledge of allegiance, all of those gathered were greeted by Mayor Don Briggs of Emmitsburg and Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner. Both officials thanked the families present for the sacrifices of their loved ones, lauding the heroes for their bravery in the face of danger.
Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland then addressed the crowd, offering his condolences to the grieving and highly praising the fallen for their courage and willingness to sacrifice themselves.
“Here in Emmitsburg we inscribe the names of loved ones and heroes—it is a place we can come to remember those who have fallen in the service of their communities, of their neighbors, and of our country,” said Hoyer. “It is a place where all of us can find solace and fill those empty spaces in our hearts through the power of love and remembrance.”
Following Congressman Hoyer’s remarks, live broadcast feed of Memorial Park was projected, showing the placement of the presidential wreath at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial.
Immediately following, Chief Ernest Mitchell of the United States Fire Administration and FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate also addressed the crowd. Both men strongly praised all firefighters for their service to the country.
“If you really look into the heart of a firefighter, the question is not about them—it’s about who they serve,” said Fugate. “They never think about if they’ll go home. They always think about who they’re helping, who they’re serving, oftentimes at great sacrifice.”
As Fugate concluded his remarks, he introduced President Obama. In speaking to the audience about the firefighting profession, the president drew on Christian scripture and lauded firefighters for being their brother’s keeper.
“Every single day, across our country, men and women leave their homes and their families so that they might save the lives of people they’ve never met,” Obama said. “They are good stewards, serving their neighborhoods, their communities, our nation, with courage and fortitude and strength. We can never repay them fully for their sacrifices.”
Obama also offered his condolences and those of all Americans to the families and friends of the fallen firefighters.
“Words alone cannot ease the pain of your loss,” Obama said to the grieving who were gathered. “But perhaps it helps a little bit to know that the American people stand with you in honoring your loved ones. We admire them, we cherish the work that they do, and we hold you in our hearts today and always.”
After Obama concluded his speech to a standing ovation, he officially unveiled the 2014 memorial plaque, to be mounted on the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Obama then personally met with each of the families of the fallen firefighters. After each family met with the president, they were presented with a folded flag, a personalized fire badge, and a single red rose. Each of the flags had been previously flown over the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial and the Capitol dome.
Once all of the families had met with the president, the bells were tolled the traditional fifteen times to signal a final farewell to the fallen heroes. The Rev. Thomas Mulcrone of the Chicago fire department offered a final prayer, commending the fallen heroes and their families to the care of God.
While the 2015 National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend has passed, the NFFF is still offering ways to honor the fallen heroes. Names and biographical information for all of the eighty-seven fallen firefighters can be found online at firehero.org. Donations to the Foundation in their honor can also be made at the same website.
Photos by Bill Green, Courtesy of NFFF
President Obama unveiled the 2014 plaque to be placed on the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, featuring the names of eighty-four firefighters who passed away in 2014, and three who passed away in earlier years.