Survivors Awestruck During Wreath Laying

ARLINGTON, VA. -- Breath-taking, stunning, awestruck.

Those were just a few words Heidi Packard and Patrick O’Brien used to describe their feelings as they laid a wreath on behalf of fallen firefighters at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday.

It was an especially poignant moment for both who lost loved ones who were serving in their community fire departments.

Packard lost her husband, Swanzey, N.H. Capt. David Packard, who died of a heart attack hours after an alarm in 2006.

“He died in my arms,” O’Brien said of his father, Richard, who collapsed at a fire in 2004 in Warren, R.I.

O’Brien said words really can’t describe his feelings as he stood saluting just steps from the tomb. “It was breath-taking, the honor, the place, the view of Washington…”

Packard added: “It seemed like we were there forever. But, I know it wasn’t. I kept thinking about how few people actually get this close. And, I thought about what an honor and privilege for me…”

O’Brien said he was ecstatic when Packard asked him to be her escort. It was supposed to be her son, Kirk, but he is waiting to be deployed with his USMC unit.

More than 100 uniformed fire and EMS personnel saluted as a bugler blew Taps moments after the wreath was placed.

The wreath-laying ceremony marks the official start of National Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial Weekend.

Connecticut Firefighters Tim Pelton, Doug Swartz and Kevin Cooney came up with idea of the wreath-laying a few years ago. There were only a handful of honor guards present for the first ceremony in 2007, but now the event grows annually.

About 125 personnel from 30 teams along with others made the trek this year.

“We’re here to honor our brothers and sisters,” Pelton said.

The honor guards say they’re certain the tradition will continue to gain momentum in years to come. “It’s about pride and respect. There is no age limit, and I hope the younger members are learning," Swartz said.

Pelton, the honor guard commander this year, said people register online for what details they want to do over the memorial weekend. The dedication and commitment is there, he said, as personnel are paying their own way to travel and participate.

Jason Irby, a firefighter in Spotsylvania, Va., met with the honor guards briefly before the ceremony. “It’s important we’re all on the same page…”

It was especially vital Thursday morning as the area near the tomb is a quiet zone. They marched in silence, and followed the lead of the military commander.

“It’s about the families,” Irby said. “We’re here for them.”