EMMITSBURG, MD – The lighting of a Christmas tree drew both applause and tears Thursday night.
It wasn’t just another tree. This one is in memory of the nation’s firefighters who gave the ultimate sacrifice while serving their communities.
The tree beside the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Chapel greets visitors to the National Fire Academy.
Three trees in the sanctuary are adorned with handmade ornaments and items honoring the fallen heroes.
Some photos are on colorful construction paper stars complete with personal messages, while balls contain the names of heroes and their departments. There are family collages of happy moments.
There are bells, fire trucks and love notes.
Jane Neville pointed to the trees: “Every ornament represents a loved one who has been lost.”
Neville’s son, Brian, 32, was a Baltimore County paramedic/firefighter, who was found dead in his station in 2008.
She said her son, like the others, “died doing what they absolutely loved to do.”
Neville said it’s comforting to know that her son “is honored every day on this beautiful campus.”
She praised the staff of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation not only for handling the ornaments with the utmost care, but for the never-ending support.
In a later interview Neville said her son’s family that includes three children, 9, 8 and 4 are doing well. “The youngest doesn’t remember him. She says if firemen carry ladders why doesn’t he put one up and climb down from heaven?”
Neville was one of several survivors who attended the ceremony.
Dawn Ruane and her daughter, Ashley, made the trip back to Emmitsburg a little over two months after Roselle, N.J. Capt. Jon Young was honored.
“We were supposed to marry this past summer,” Dawn said, turning her head toward the tree where her love note to Young hangs.
Ruane said while the Christmas season is difficult, the camaraderie of other survivors has meant the world to her and her daughter. “They have been a godsend to us.”
The New Jersey responder remains active in urban search and rescue, a mission the couple shared.
Doris Neilson, whose husband, Peter, died of a heart attack in 2007 following a call in Kenockee Township, MI, said she thinks adorning the trees with personal ornaments is a nice gesture. “I’m very glad to be here to see this.”
After the Christmas season, the NFFF staff will gingerly pack those personal ornaments, handmade stars, notes and pictures.
NFFF Chief of Staff Linda Hurley said she was pleased with the number of students and staff who attended the ceremony.
Throughout the season, many will venture into the chapel and spend a few minutes to read the messages and view the pictures of fallen heroes.