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President's Emmitsburg appearance
scheduled months ago

Emily Salmon

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 years.

"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 president."

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 dignitaries.

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 and before.

"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."