The Brockport Volunteer Fire Department located in a small village on the banks of the Erie Canal west of Rochester, NY drew record breaking crowds from the tri-county region for its 10th Annual Vigil. They seemed to come from near and far to pay their respects to the the many heroes that left us ten years ago. Just as the towers took the lives of 343 firefighters as they fell, so too they took the lives of Police Officers and EMT's, of Moms and Dads, and brothers and sisters whom would never be heard from again. And the taking didn't stop there, in New York City. They continued their short lived reign of terror down the coast as they took over a plane that was immediately downed in Pennsylvania and another crashing into the Pentagon. It was a scary day for most Americans.
However, we are not here to retell that story. No, indeed, we are not. What we are here to tell is how a Volunteer Fire Department has set in motion a tradition that seems to grow each year on the anniversary of that fateful day. We are not here to tell of the dead, as their story has been told many times over. And it will continue to be told by others. We are here to speak of the living; of the every day heroes found in our first responders, of the Moms and Dads and brothers and sisters who seem to find solace in spending time at the Monument each and every year on 9/11.
You have heard me speak of, and tell the tale of the creation of the Monument. You have seen that this Fire Department hosts its Vigil every year. Despite the similarities found annually, each year there is something different and each year there are many things the same.
There are three ceremonies. There are always three ceremonies. They are scheduled to allow for everyone in the community to be able to attend at least one of them. Each year at the opening ceremony, the grand 6'x10' American Flag is lowered to half staff. At the start of the ceremony it is proudly waving to passersby to announce: I am here, I am strong and I represent all that is good about this great land we live in. And, then, as soon as it is lowered to half-staff, it is almost like it has life of its own as it eerily droops and hangs sullenly throughout the day. It is like it is saying to all that come to share the day, "I am sorry about the lost heroes" while sharing our tribute with them.
At 8:47, the next tradition that has set in over time takes place. The Fire Department rings the memorial bell in true Fire Department of New York (FDNY) fashion. The bell tolls 5-5-5-5, as it always has when a firefighter is killed in the line of duty in the Big Apple. They are proud to ring it, and all uniformed personnel stop whatever they are doing and salute the flag on the leaning pole. This year, the flag on that pole has special significance to all that shared the day, and that brings us to the first of several "family" stories.
This writer grew up in this department and one of the old time favorites was an old family friend in Company 3 - the Protectives. He moved from the area long ago, but before he did, they gave his Dad, a past Chief, his final ride on his firetruck. Well as families go, his Dad was a Chief and his son is now a career firefighter. But on his way to his current job, his son stopped off as part of the civilian firefighting force in Fallujah, Iraq. While there, he requested an American flag be flown in honor of the Brockport Fire Department, and they did. The flag on the Monument on 9/11/11 was flown over the Fallujah Fire Department on 9/11/06 at the request of Lieutenant Ryan Wheeler, son of former BFD Lieutenant Gerald Wheeler, and grandson of Past Chief Hub Wheeler. The department was honored to receive this flag and to fly it proudly on the anniversary.
Another family that has adopted this home as their's on September 11 come to them from Hamlin. It used to be Dad, Past Chief George Dorgan, Sr. of the Hamlin Fire Department was joined by his sons Skip and Steve; both Past Chiefs of the same department, but now Dad has become Grandpa as Skip's son Michael has now been appointed a firefighter with the City of Batavia Fire Department. Skip is now with the Brockport Fire Department, Steve is with Barnard FD and Michael donned the uniform of his new home as they all paid their respects to the fallen. They welcomed the Dorgans, the Rombauts, the Gillespies and all the fire families with several generations to the Monument that day. They welcomed bikers and babies, students and soldiers, the neighbors from across the street and the folks who brought carloads of uniformed personnel from Greece. It was a community event that lasted all day.
So, we've talked about the family that is no longer, and we talked about the family that for generations have grown up to become firefighters, now let's talk about the 4 year old that can't wait to join his father in the fire service. Nate, who used to prefer "Fireman Dave" as his moniker met up with his father, a firefighter from Fancher-Hulburton-Murray Fire Department at the Monument. He sat patiently through the noon ceremony for one reason and one reason only. He was there in his little uniform ready to stand guard over the Monument with his Dad, and stand he did. A proud Mother stood off to the side taking photos, a Chief stopped what he was doing to take notice of this little firefighter on his path to the big leagues. I have been told his room is adorned with patches of fire departments from all over and he just can't wait to don his own air pak. With more like "Fireman Dave", the volunteer fire service can look forward to many more years of dedicated community service.
Let's talk a little more about the noon ceremony that lil Fireman Dave sat through. It wasn't without a little bit of excitement all its own. First, the guest host shared his day, his thoughts and his humor when Tony Infantino from WARM 101 radio joked with the County Executive Maggie Brooks. He wanted to know how she went from TV personality to County Exec. He got a spontaneous laugh from the crowd when she offered him the opportunity to run for it that he immediately declined. Then it was Ms. Brooks turn to take in a laugh when she recognized that Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn was leading over six hundred motorcyles to the ceremony. Yup, that's right, you read six hundred correctly. Ms. Brooks mentioned had she known the Sheriff would be making such a grand entrance, she would have hitched a ride on the back of his bike. And so it goes, amidst the remembrances and commemorations still crop up the occasional laugh, to keep the Vigil light but engaging.
The bikes we are talking about all belong to Operation Patriot who during their annual 9/11 "Let's Roll" ride stopped in for the noon ceremony. They left Ontario Beach Park and the Field of Flags sporting 343 American flags during their Mission 343 and they landed halfway across the county where the triangle in front of the Monument boasted another 343 flags; one for each of the lost firefighters. This was the first year for these flags and the irony here is that neither the fire department knew of their plans, nor did Operation Patriot know of the fire department's when either ordered their flags.
The afternoon went off without a hitch, people came and went. Some dropped flowers, while others stopped to offer a prayer. People shared a thank you with their community volunteers. Patriotic music played in the background. From "Stars and Stripes" to "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes, there was something for everyone and some of them drew a tear or caused a story. Stories of those that were lost and stories of vigils from days gone by. Many had them to tell and there was never a shortage of those that listened in earnest to how they ended.
The most memorable story that was told was by the guest host at the closing ceremony. A new visitor to the Vigil on her second visit to the Monument shared her teary-eyed experience of working in New York City for a CBS News station on 9/11/01. Tina Shively from WROC Channel 8 brought forth a tear or two from the crowd as she apologized for losing her composure during her remarks. "No apology needed Tina" was all she needed to hear after the Vigil. She had brought another BFD Commemoration to a somber, yet dignified closing. The flag was raised, the Gates Police Pipes and Drums played for the crowd and the last thing that has been heard each and every year by those in attendance was Firefighter James Sutton, a retired math teacher from Brockport Central Schools belt out "Taps" on his trumpet.
May each of the fallen Rest In Peace. May they and the sacrifices they made never be forgotten. May the Monument that was created in their honor and memory stand tall, and host many more vigils in the years to come. And, may all of you continue to share Patriot Day with your families just as our firefighters and emergency responders do with theirs.