Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Final Bell

In a quiet corner of Memorial Park, in Colorado Springs, under the shadow of Pikes Peak, is a statue. A fire fighter descends a ladder, with a child tucked safely under his arm, a marble wall forming a backdrop to the scene. Every year on September 11th, fire fighters and families from around the country gather there, a hallowed place, to stand in memory of the brothers, sisters, husbands, fathers, sons, and daughters they have lost. On that day, the park is filled with men and women in dress uniform, navy blue showing dark against the grass, music floats in the background, bagpipes and drums can be heard warming up, and a general buzz of anticipation fills the air. If you watch the uniforms as they pass, it becomes clear just how many fire departments are represented: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Austin, Las Vegas, Washington DC and many others. The day has been blessed with perfect weather: a clear sky, bright and warm, with just enough of a breeze to keep it bearably cool, a fact which it is certain those in uniform are thankful for.

At precisely 1:00 pm, when the rows of white chairs are full to overflowing, and large numbers still stand in the back, the chaplain and master of ceremonies mounts the podium. His opening words call the listeners to remembrance, to honor the 343 who gave their lives nine years ago in the World Trade Center attacks. Silence falls, saturated with the emotions of those who know what this moment, what that sacrifice, means. The chaplain begins to pray, petitioning protection for those who put their lives in danger every day, praying peace and comfort on the families and friends who have been left behind. The prayer ends and in the moment that follows the hum of bagpipes fills the silence. Slowly, solemnly, pipers representing fire departments from around the country march into view, followed by flag bearers carrying the banners of the departments who have lost members in the last year. Row after row fills in, a mass of colors heartbreaking in its density.

After the long procession is ended, the crowd comes to attention and the sea of fire fighters salute the flags overhead while the national anthem is sung. As the last note fades, the thunder of jets overtakes the crowd as Air Force pilots perform an aerial salute. As they disappear from view, the crowd is seated. The marble wall, backdrop to the statue, is engraved with the names of the 2274 fire fighters who have died in the line of duty since the memorial was established in 1976. Those gathered there have come to commemorate the 136 names that this year will be added to the wall. They are more than names however. Behind each engraving is a story, a man or woman who made the ultimate sacrifice, a family who still bears that hardest of burdens. That is why they are here, to insure that those stories are not forgotten, that the price the fallen paid is remembered.

Fourteen at a time, the flag bearers march to the front of the crowd, each accompanied by another department member bearing a folded flag. In the silence, the only sound is the snap of flags in the breeze. They begin to read: Orice “Randy” H. Miller, Ventura, CA; John J. Doherty, Chelsea, MA; Richard F. Smith, Houston, TX and the list goes on. As each name is read, it is accompanied by the sound of a bell, a single toll. In early fire departments, it was a bell that rang the beginning of the day and that alerted the fire fighters of a call. A bell was also rung at the completion of the call, signaling that the danger was passed. For some though, this final bell was not to be. So now, as they honor those who never heard that final bell, it clangs with each name.

When a name is read, the family of the fire fighter stands and are presented with the folded flag. Watching those who rise, it is striking how many are themselves in uniform, fathers, sons, or brothers, who answered the call together, but are now left to carry on alone. So also, mothers, wives, children, rise to receive the tribute flag. A brother and sister, no older than ten, stand with their mother and are handed their father’s flag. After the flag has been presented, the carrier takes a step back, with tears in his eyes, and salutes gravely, a world of meaning in a simple gesture.

What is especially striking about the list of names is that of the 136, only 84 of them died in active duty. The other 52 succumbed to occupational diseases, honored as line of duty deaths. To an outside observer, the risks of a fire fighting career may seem obvious. It is dangerous work no doubt, running into burning buildings when anyone else would run out. What most don’t realize is that even those who survive the immediate dangers face still greater challenges. A wife sends her husband off every three days, knowing full well he may not return, but even if he does, the risk does not end there. Heart attacks, lung cancer, other stress related diseases, these are only some of what fire fighter takes on when he chooses that life. The price they pay for lightening others’ burdens is that they shoulder that burden themselves. Smoke inhalation, exposure to toxins, post-traumatic stress syndrome, all are occupational hazards. A fire fighter’s life span is typically five to ten years shorter than the average person. The death toll for fire fighters felled by the 9-11 tragedy is still mounting, as the long term results are only now becoming obvious. This is the price that not only they, but also their families pay, for the good of those around them. This is the sacrifice that they willingly make, that others may live.

So the names are read, far too many of them; the bell tolls, far too many times; the crowd stands and watches, feel the late summer sun burn down, unable to turn away, riveted by the families’ faces as sorrow and pride mingle in their tears. When the list is complete, the bell rings out a final call, three times, three times again. The mournful notes of taps swell in the air, echoing the emotions that swell in the hearts of those who watch. The flags are lowered to half mast, a visible reminder that this group is incomplete, with loved ones and friends missing from its ranks. The choir sings: “The last full measure of devotion/Beyond the call of duty were their deeds/The last full measure of devotion/They gave themselves to serve the greater need.” The ceremony comes to a close and the crowd, quiet with the solemnity of the moment, turns to go, but for the families and fellow fire fighters of those who were honored here, the journey alone has only begun. The country may stand in remembrance one day a year, but for them it is impossible to forget, because every day is a reminder of what they have sacrificed, a reminder of those for whom the final bell has rung.

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