Memorial Chapel Trees Honor Fallen Firefighters

EMMITSBURG, Md. -- There are snowmen, fire trucks, cards and an array of items many would find on a Christmas tree.

What makes these ornaments special are photographs as well as the emotional, heartfelt messages that accompany them.

They adorn two trees in the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Chapel.

Many agreed it was impossible to walk away dry-eyed after reading the notes. "I love you all dearly. Now, don't shed a tear. I'm spending my Christmas with Jesus this year" was the inscription on one side of a brass ornament.

Another was from the son of a fallen firefighter telling his father about his first birthday, and learning about him from his grandparents. The boy tells the dad he'll never hug that he too, likes tractors and music.

Nearby, each point of a snowflake contains a word -- I love you my dear son.

Another in the shape of a Maltese cross has a tiny handprint inscribed "to daddy."

There are pictures of fallen heroes with their families, in turnout gear, and engaging in sports.

People who step up to look at the ornaments and gingerly reach for them to read the messages are unusually quiet. If there is conversation, it's done in a whisper.

On Tuesday, Michael and Bernadine Gilrain traveled from New Jersey to attend the lighting of the Christmas tree honoring fallen heroes.

Gilrain also placed an ornament he made for his colleague, Elizabeth Firefighter Gary Stephens, on the tree.

Stephens, 57, was killed in 2009 after he was run over by a fire engine at a fire scene.

Gilrain, also a firefighter in Elizabeth, proudly showed the Maltese cross ornament he carved. A picture of his friend graces the center while on the opposite side it says "always in our hearts."

The couple said they're impressed by the NFFF staff members who go out of their way to make them feel welcome.

"It's a shame we found out about the foundation the way we did. We didn't have any idea," said Bernadine.

Since the death of their friend, they've not only been back to help during the annual memorial weekend, they've been trying to get the word out about the foundation and the support they offer.

Prior to the lighting of the tree, a handbell choir comprised of children from Frederick Adventist Church performed.

Linda Hurley, NFFF director of survivor programs, said the sacrifices of the fallen heroes will always be remembered.