Our Fallen Heroes

Oct. 4, 1998, marked the 17th annual Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service. The ceremony honored 89 career and volunteer firefighters from 32 states and the District of Columbia who died in the line of duty. The annual service is held on the grounds of the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, where the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial is located.

Photo by Charles Werner
A Presidential Wreath was placed at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial during the 17th annual Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service as a national tribute to firefighters who died in service to their communities.

Perhaps the morning's chilly drizzle of rain was symbolic of a nation mourning the loss of its fire heroes. But the rain could neither dampen the spirits of families mourning loved ones nor firefighters honoring comrades who had lost their lives in the line of duty. About 70 honor guard units from across the country lined the walks as family members approached the public memorial. In the background, bagpipes were being played in tribute.

Honoring The Fallen And Those They Leave Behind

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation advises that firefighters die in the line of duty at an average of one every three days. During the memorial service, Firehouse® Magazine Contributing Editor Hal Bruno proclaimed, "When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, there are three things that must happen simultaneously. First, we must honor our fallen comrades and tell the world of the sacrifice they made. Equally important, we must support their families in their time of grief and do all that we can to help them face a new and uncertain future. And we must determine what went wrong so that we can take steps to prevent it from happening again. We must NEVER be complacent, NEVER accept the death of a firefighter is inevitable, even though we know that the work that they do is inherently dangerous and each year new names will be added to this memorial."

It is because of the sacrifices made by firefighters and their families, that I wish to focus attention on the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). The foundation was created by Congress to lead a nationwide effort to remember America's fallen firefighters and their families. It serves the fire community by:

  • Sponsoring the annual memorial service weekend.
  • Helping survivors attend the weekend by providing lodging and meals and assisting with travel expenses when needed.
  • Providing a family peer support network from which they can receive emotional assistance from other fire service families.
  • Awarding scholarships to surviving spouses and children.
  • Assisting fire departments in dealing with families following tragic losses.
  • Creating a national park by expanding the official national memorial site in Emmitsburg to tell the fire service story and help promote greater fire and emergency safety.

A Survivor's Story

I had a chance to speak to families who had lost loved ones. I saw and heard their remarks of honor, joy and appreciation about the support that they received from the foundation, the fire community and other families. The voices of mothers, fathers, wives and children who had survived spoke loudly about what this memorial service weekend meant to them. It is a ceremony that every firefighter should attend to appreciate the memorial's significance and to honor fallen comrades.

While this service touched my heart as I was reminded of a friend who died in the line of duty, I cannot begin to feel the deepest emotions as told by the wife of FDNY Captain John J. Drennan, who died in the line of duty and was honored in 1995 at the memorial service. Here is Vina Drennan's heartbreaking story:

"I stood as tall as I could that chilly October afternoon on my first trip to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 1995. I had journeyed there to hear his name and to hear the words, 'On behalf of a grateful nation...' As I reached out to accept the flag that had been so lovingly folded, I heard his name announced with all the respect a name can be spoken. 'Captain John J. Drennan, New York City.' Later, I walked among the crowd that gathered around the memorial and my finger reached out and traced the brass letters that honor the memory of the brave man I've loved for so many years.

"That year, 107 names were spoken; 107 times the color guard rigidly and meticulously presented the tightly folded flag, 107 times 'On behalf of a grateful nation,' was repeated. And 107 families came, often accompanied by representatives from their fire departments, all bearing broken hearts, many clutching a photograph and needing to share a story of a life that ended all too suddenly and all too tragically.

"From all over America we gathered, journeying from Oregon and Arkansas, from Massachusetts and Indiana; a pilgrimage from all the parts of this nation, representing departments that serve our most rural communities to the departments that serve our biggest metropolitan cities. We came to hear the names and to run our finger across the letters that will always sit on a plaque that honors the heroism and sacrifice of a line of duty death while serving in our nation's fire service…

"Tragically, approximately 100 firefighters lose their lives in the line of duty fighting and responding to fires in America every year. It is only right that a grateful nation honors the heroes who so willingly give of themselves while serving the communities across this great nation. It is only right that the families and loved ones of the firefighter are given recognition and any support services they need in trying to deal with the impact of the death in their lives.

"The National Fallen Firefight-ers Memorial was built in Emmitsburg in 1981 as that tribute to this dedication. Each year, the names of deceased firefighters are added to the roll of honor plaques that surround the memorial. The memorial was designated in 1990 by Congress as the official national monument to all fire heroes who gave their lives in the line of duty. Thousands of visitors come each year to this beautiful place and pay their respects while reflecting on the enormity of the sacrifice. Sadly, the space that this beautiful memorial occupies has been filled and Congress has charged the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation to work with the National Park Service to expand the memorial.

"The design for the new memorial embodies a spirit of strength, hope and honor. At the center of the chosen site, pure-white concrete-shaped flames will rise 20 feet, reaching to the sky and covering 60 feet in length. Around the perimeter, the plaques, bearing all the names of the deceased firefighters will fan out, connected by brick walkways which will form the shape of a Maltese Cross. These thousands of bricks will comprise a 'Walk of Honor' listing the names that supporters of the national memorial want to honor.

"In New York City, we have undertaken a project that honors the lives of our lost members at the national memorial in Emmitsburg. The department pays tribute to those lives with an enormous plaque at FDNY Headquarters bearing bronze name plates identifying the member, rank and date of death. We have most recently become involved honoring each of those lives with a commemorative brick which will be laid in an FDNY section of the walk at the national memorial. Members, friends and families are sending a $100 contribution along with the name they want inscribed on the brick for the Walkway of Heroes. Of course the loved ones remembered are being honored, but we are not forgetting the ones that came before us.

National Fallen Firefighters Foundation
The expanded National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, located at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, will feature a "Walk of Honor" and flame sculpture.

"The memorial will always be a holy place for those of us who loved firefighters and the ideals for which they are willing to sacrifice. Perhaps most important, however, is what the National Firefighter Memorial will do with the money after the bricks are laid and the new addition is established. The foundation's goal is to offer the services necessary to help families whether it is scholarships or counseling so that they do not feel abandoned. In many places, support services are lacking and this will be an answer for those families that need support in these areas. What better way to honor a lost firefighter than to take care of the ones he loved.

"Firefighting is a dangerous job. Sadly, new names will be added to plaques each year and new families will continue to come, bearing their broken hearts and treasured memories. Little boys whose daddies will not be there to teach them to drive, daughters whose fathers will not walk beside them on their wedding day, wives turned to widows too soon, the broken hearted mothers and fathers all wishing for what can never be. And the firefighters who loved and worked with them will continue to come too, standing so tall in their sea of blue uniforms, broken by grief, tears unshamingly will continue to come, searching for answers, wanting to share our loss and needing to hear the words, 'On behalf of a grateful nation.'

"Perhaps you have a name you would like to be inscribed on a brick on the Walkway of Heroes. Perhaps your department would like to honor the sacrifices of those who came before us. Supporting this project is a worthy way to remember all our heroes. I hope your family never has to make that difficult journey to Emmitsburg in early October. I hope your mother never has to reach out to receive that neatly folded flag. I hope your wife never has to hear your name and the words, 'On behalf of a grateful nation.' Make safety a virtue. Each of you is precious to someone and it is a terribly high price your family pays forever. While we celebrate the courage of firefighters, let's always be vigilant to elevate fire safety to high prominence for the sake of the people who love you. On behalf of a grateful nation, let's make your safety our highest priority."

Presidential Tribute

To Vina Drennan and others who lost loved ones, President Clinton sent these thoughts:

"Greetings to all those gathered for the Annual National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service. We place profound responsibilities on our nation's firefighters, asking them to place the safety and well being of their neighbors above their own. We trust them to keep our families, homes, schools and neighborhoods safe from fire. Because of their efforts, our nation is a better place to live. Eighty-nine men and women you are honoring at this ceremony carried out the responsibilities with courage, skill and steadfast regard for the well-being of others. Putting their lives on the line, they made an enormous contribution to the communities they serve; earning the enduring gratitude and respect of their fellow citizens."

Following the President's remarks, the Presidential Wreath was placed at the memorial as a national tribute to those fire heroes that gave their lives for our country.

To learn more about the National Firefighters Memorial and how you can help, visit the Website at www.firehero.org, telephone 301-447-1365 or you visit Firehouse On-Line at www.Firehouse.com. On the Website you can see highlights of the service and hear audio clips of the moving comments made by Hal Bruno at last year's service as well as additional artwork of the new site.

I wish to thank the devoted staff members of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Foundation for their tireless efforts to honor the memory of our fallen firefighters and to support the loved ones who have been left behind.

Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 23-year veteran of the fire service. He is currently a battalion chief with the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department's Division of Training, Technology and Community Affairs.