EMMITSBURG, MD - In 1995, Pat Snonaker sat in the Basilica of the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton holding a candle, trying to make sense of it all. There was an emptiness beyond description.
On Saturday night, the daughter of a fallen firefighter returned to offer words of comfort to others who now find themselves in the same position. "...This weekend has introduced you to an extended family that I know you did not choose to be in. But, nonetheless, you are now a part of."
Like Ms. Stonaker, people who've lost loved ones in the line of duty continue to reach out not only during the annual memorial weekend. They've formed a tight network.
"There are many of us who feel this weekend is a pilgrimage which we return to every year. This journey is to remember our own fallen firefighter, but it is also for you..."
A string quartet and uniformed firefighters who moved in dignified precision set the mood for the annual candlelight vigil.
While the ceremonies are respectful, the acting director of the USFA said he doesn't believe it's enough. "We will know we have done enough when we stop having to experience the losses and sacrifices of firefighters."
While there is much more to do to promote safety, Charlie Dickinson promised the families that their loved ones will not be forgotten.
"Each one of these firefighters has earned the loyalty of this nation..."
One by one, the families were escorted to the altar rail to light small, personalized luminaries for their heroes. One woman, who nearly collapsed, had to be assisted back to her pew.
Ms. Stonaker recalled: "I remember sitting in this room absorbing the beauty of this Basilica. I remember listening to the unbelievable voices of the vocalists, and having chills run down my spine. I remember the firefighters dressed in their finest, symbols of dignity, strength and respect. I was overwhelmed by it all then, as I have been every year since."
She asked people to feel the warmth, and promised the grieving families and friends that they will never be alone.
"We are lighting a candle for our loved one. We are starting a fire. How ironic. Isn't that what brought us all here in the first place -- our loved one's determination to stomp out fire?"
Ms. Stonaker went on to explain that fires create a peaceful, serene atmosphere. "For me, this candle lighting ceremony is the most important part of the memorial weekend because when I walk through these doors, I feel as though I'm walking into the biggest bear hug from every fallen firefighter who has been honored in Emmitsburg."
Carol Liddy, Jessica Seaburg, Jennifer Cormican, Laurie Tilton Kornfewer and Cathy Coursen, daughters of fallen firefighters, lit a large candle in honor of all heroes.
Before the women went through the crowd sharing their lights with others, Ms. Stonaker encouraged the families to glance around them, breathe in the emotions and absorb the strength and unwavering respect.
The candles twinkled in the dark chapel as the photographs of the fallen heroes were flashed on a large screen.