scheduled months ago
In the wake of the terrorist attacks
on the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush's decision
to speak at the 20th annual National Fallen Firefighters
Memorial service in Emmitsburg could not have been more
opportune. The events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath have
thrust firefighters and their heroism into the nation's
spotlight as never before.
Surprisingly, the tragedy that has
taken the lives of more than 300 firefighters in New York had
no bearing on the president's decision. Bush had accepted the
invitation to attend the service back in July.
Hal Bruno, chairman of the board of
directors of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, said
Tuesday that the foundation, which hosts the memorial weekend,
had unsuccessfully extended invitations to the presidency for
"We've always wanted a president
to come to this memorial service, and none ever did,"
Bruno said, "and I was determined that our families and
our fallen firefighters deserved the attention of a
Bruno issued the invitation through
Joe Allbaugh, who has since become a familiar face to TV
viewers because of his position as director of the Federal
Emergency Management Agency.
Bruno said the foundation could not
make Bush's decision public until September because it was not
yet a firm commitment. He even scheduled a contingency speaker
in case the president had to cancel - coincidentally, Tom
Ridge, who was later named head of the Office of Homeland
Security after the terrorist attacks.
During Bush's speech, none of the
estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people in attendance could know that,
only a few hours later, the United States would launch
missiles on Taliban military strongholds in Afghanistan.
The ceremony saw unprecedented
security in effect throughout the morning. On-campus parking
was prohibited for members of the public, who were shuttled in
buses from Mount St. Mary's College. All participants had to
pass through a metal detector, where everything was searched,
from pocketbooks to TV cameras.
Secret Service guards stood atop the
roofs of campus buildings, continually scanning the crowd
through binoculars as helicopters whirred overhead. Areas were
strictly partitioned, separating the media, families and
Once the ceremony was under way,
although the ceremony officially honored firefighters who had
died in the line of duty last year, the calamitous events of
September were on everyone's mind. From his opening remarks,
Bruno said, "Unlike any other year, the shadow of the
World Trade Center hovers over this ceremony."
In his speech, Bush paid tribute to
both the firefighters who died in the World Trade Center
attacks and those who had died across the country last year
"The courage and loss we saw in
New York is found in every community that has laid a
firefighter to rest," Bush said. "Hardly a week
passes in America when a career or a volunteer firefighter
does not fall in the line of duty."
According to the National Fallen
Firefighters Foundation, 55 of those who died last year were
volunteer firefighters, 38 were career firefighters and four
were contractors with full-time firefighting duties.
The remaining two were prison inmates.
Michael Todd Bishop, 27, and Rodgie R. Braithwaite, 26, were
members of the Flame-N-Go's, a firefighting unit in the Utah
Department of Corrections. They were struck by lightning on
Aug. 23, 2000, while fighting a wildfire in the Stansbury
Mountains. The two were the first line-of-duty fatalities in
the unit's 22-year history.
Several Maryland dignitaries joined
the president and his wife on the platform set up outside the
memorial. U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Baltimore could
be seen taking pictures before the ceremony. Rep. Roscoe G.
Bartlett Jr. (R-Dist. 6) of Buckeystown wore a red, white and
blue tie. U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) of Baltimore and Rep.
Steny H. Hoyer (D-Dist. 5) of Mitchellville also were present.
After he spoke, Bush, in attendance
with his wife Laura, placed a wreath on the memorial and
hurriedly departed by helicopter for the White House.
Sr. Capt. Chet Chiara of the Anchorage
(Alaska) Fire Department had never attended the ceremony.
"It's been a real learning
experience for me," Chiara said afterward. Chiara carried
the flag of the City of Anchorage during the honor guard
procession that passed in front of the president.
"It brings some newfound pride in
what you do," he said.
Like any firefighter, Bruno was quick
to give praise to all who helped. From the local fire
departments that provided dozens of fire vehicles to protect
the president's walk, to the "fire buffs" who
staffed canteens to feed the families and firefighters, from
the Emergency Management Institute to the International
Association of Fire Chiefs. Bruno said of everyone, "I
don't know of any group of people that could produce the
results they did."
When Bruno told the president that his
presence with Mrs. Bush would give a tremendous boost to the
healing process for the grieving families, the president told
him, "This is exactly where I should do."