Most of us have seared images of the September 11th attacks. No words adequately describe the emotions felt as we watched those events take place. For me, though, I'll never forget the images of fire fighters running up the steps inside the World Trade Center. Did they know? I'm sure some understood. They were there to sacrifice it all in the service of others.
On September 17, the International Association of Fire Fighters will live stream their 30th annual Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial from Colorado Springs. I encourage you to watch.
My sisters and I attended this event in 1997, when our father’s name was added to the hundreds of others that have been carved into the black marble memorial. It was a day I’ll never forget.
It was a typical autumn day in the Rockies. Cold, with rain and some fog in the area. At the entrance to the memorial, two fire trucks extended their long ladders high into the air in an A-shaped formation, with the American and Canadian flags draped between. Bagpipes played as fire fighters from across North America strode in precise formation, surrounding the seats where our family and the family of other fallen fire fighters sat on folding chairs. It was solemn, and the fire fighters were as respectful and dignified as any group I’d ever encountered. They made us feel special, and they paid respect to the newly added names and the existing names carved on the long wall in front of us. The most impactful moment we all share happened as Rick Paul of the Norwood Fire Fighters, the department for which my father worked, slowly walked up to us with white-gloved hands, holding a tri-folded American flag. It was a moment fit for my father’s sacrifice. I’m looking at that flag as I write this today.
I had the opportunity to travel back to Colorado Springs in 2007 on business. I took an afternoon and drove to the memorial, which was exactly as I remembered. Located in the middle of a large park where families come to play, where many jog and exercise, and where others simply take slow, relaxing walks. The landscaping is beautiful, lined with trees and crowned with a backdrop of Pikes Peak’s 13,000-foot summit.
I found my father’s name, listed with the other fire fighters who lost their lives in 1984. I sat quietly, ran my fingers over the carved stone, and I cried. Of course I missed him, as I do to this day. But I felt a sense of pride. The Norwood Fire Department led the effort to add my father’s name to the memorial. For that, we are forever grateful. And the IAFF constructed this site so that men and women who die in the line of their service to our communities are never forgotten.
I stood up, took a deep breath, and began walking the length of the granite wall. Year after chiseled year, names were carved in honor of the dead. Some years listed relatively few names. Others, not so few. Then I saw the year 2001. I stopped. It was breathtaking. 9/11. Name after name after name. The names of the faces we see in video clips, running toward the towers, carrying equipment up the steep, narrow, smoked-filled stairways, looking into cameras on their way to their deaths. I stood in front of the marble reading their names, each and every one of them. And I imagined what that Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial service must have been like that year for the families of the dead and the fire fighter communities in attendance. It was heartbreaking, no doubt. But the IAFF and each of their local representatives conveyed upon their lost brothers and sisters an honorable and unforgettable moment, one that those left behind are recalling today.
Today, we remember FDNY, along with so many police, medical personnel, volunteers and complete strangers who gave their lives helping others that day. And, of course, the innocent victims and their families.
The Fallen Fire Fighter memorial in Colorado Springs, and the memorials at Ground Zero, in Shanksville and in Washington DC, assure us that, long after we have gone, someone will read those carved names and remember their sacrifice.
Thanks to all who sacrificed, and those who continue to sacrifice, in the service of others.