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Flags fly high, emotions run deep at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend

Relatives and friends of the 107 firefighters honored at this year’s Memorial Weekend were welcomed by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation on Friday, October 10. After traveling in the rain and gloom, they arrived at the family hotel in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where they made luminaries, memory boxes, name rubbings from the plaque, and Christmas ornaments to honor and remember their firefighters. Over 550 relatives and friends of fallen firefighters shared dinner and learned what they would be doing over next two days.

On Saturday morning, they met in small group sessions with other survivors from across the country. The groups allowed parents of the firefighters to meet with other parents, children to meet with children and siblings to meet with siblings. By afternoon, a glimmer of sunlight broke through the heavy clouds as the loved ones of the fallen arrived at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland. As the sun brightened and the day warmed, these new survivors found comfort for their loss and support for their healing as part of the Weekend’s Family Day.

They also recorded memories of their loved ones through the Foundation’s Hero Tributes. Mae Hoffman, whose grandsons Grant McKee and Robert Caldwell died in the Yarnell, Arizona fire, spoke lovingly of the strong, kind and compassionate men they were. Hoffman recalled a day at the park with then five-year-old Grant. They saw an older boy throwing stones at the squirrels and ducks. Grant approached, put his hand on the other boy’s arm and said “How would you like anyone to do that to you?” Hoffman described Robert as very strong and kind. “I never, ever heard him even once talk bad about anyone.”

As the sun set, the families gathered on the grounds of the Memorial for a Candlelight Service. “Through music, quiet reflection, and fellowship, we will honor the memories of your loved ones – and we will also honor you,” explained Chief Dennis Compton, Chairman of the NFFF Board of Directors.
The Remembrance Candle was lit by Charles LaBella, father of Jeremy LaBella, who died in 2007. A group of returning survivors shared the light from the candle with the new families, symbolizing their bond as fire service survivors.

View photos from all the Family Day activities and the Candlelight Service here.

The Memorial Service – The Promise to Never Forget

A gentle breeze, blue skies and the resounding strain of 200 pipes and drums provided the backdrop for Sunday morning’s Memorial Service. The families were greeted by 625 honor guards, and 207 fire service escorts. In all, nearly 5,000 firefighters and others witnessed this annual event.
Bronze plaques bearing the names of 98 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2013 and 9 others who died in previous years were unveiled. “From this day on, all who visit this Memorial will see the names of your firefighters,” said Compton. “They will know that each name represents a loved family member, friend, and coworker who died while bravely serving their communities. They will think of you – the survivors.”

By video, President Obama told those gathered, “This memorial is a testament to the indelible mark that all our fallen firefighters have left on the soul of our nation. Their love of country, their love for each other, their unyielding bravery and commitment to service represent what’s best about America.”

Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland shared his sympathies with the families as the keynote speaker. “We must always remember that when a firefighter loses his or her life on the line, it is not only the family members who have suffered a loss but the entire community that firefighter served and strengthened,” he said.

Hoyer represents the bi-partisan Congressional Fire Services Caucus. The Caucus plays a pivotal role in securing funding for training and equipment to improve the safety of the nation’s firefighters.

U. S. Fire Administrator Ernie Mitchell spoke about the greater fire service family, illustrated by a quote from Bishop Desmond Tutu, “‘You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.’… Each of the firefighters remembered today were gifts to their families, friends, fellow firefighters and communities.”

U.S. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, and Mayor Donald Briggs also shared their thoughts as they honored the firefighters and their families.
After the Presidential Wreath was placed and the plaque unveiled, the name of each firefighter was read from the Roll of Honor. Survivors were then presented with a special flag flown over the U.S. Capitol and the Memorial, a personalized badge and a red rose.

Through quiet tears, loving embraces and a few warm smiles, these survivors were assured their firefighters would not be forgotten. Under a bright noon sun Chief Compton reminded the families and friends the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation would remain at their side to offer friendship, hope and support as their journey continues.

View & Download Video of the Candlelight or Memorial Services