Honoring Those Who Died to Save Others
D.C. Ceremonies Laud Fallen U.S. Firefighters

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 7, 2002; Page B01

It would be painful, John Vigiano knew, in the way that only a man who has lost two sons could know.

It would be painful for all the thousands of family members who would gather in Washington to honor the 442 firefighters killed in the line of duty in 2001 -- among them the 347 who died when the World Trade Center collapsed, including Vigiano's eldest son, John Vigiano II.

But yesterday, aboard one of the dozens of buses carrying family members in a procession to MCI Center for the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service, Vigiano took heart at what he saw.

Thousands of firefighters in dress uniforms from departments across the country lined every step of the way on both sides of the street for six blocks along Constitution Avenue and then up Seventh Street NW. The procession, led by New York City Fire Department bagpipers and followed by marching firefighters and the buses with family members, moved mournfully through the corridor of blue uniforms. On the street and in the buses, people wiped tears from their faces.

"To be honest with you, it brings everything back," Vigiano, 63, said at the memorial service. "But then you look around and see how many thousands went out of their way to be here, it makes you feel good."

Vigiano lost both his sons, his only children, in the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. His younger boy, Joseph, was a New York City police officer.

"It doesn't stop," said Vigiano, a retired New York fire captain. "There's a hole in your heart that never gets filled. It's like a cancer that doesn't stop."

Vigiano found some solace in the arms of fellow firefighters, some who were members of his son's fire company, and some whom he had never met before. "Fire service is like a family," he said.

The memorial service honoring firefighters who have fallen in the previous year is an annual event normally held in Emmitsburg, Md., at the campus of the National Fire Academy. In the last seven years, about 100 firefighters have been added annually to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's "roll of honor" listing those killed, according to Ronald Siarnicki, executive director of the organization.

The stunning loss of firefighters in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led organizers to hold this year's memorial in Washington to accommodate large numbers of mourners.

The 442 killed in 2001 is by far the most firefighters killed in one year in U.S. history, Siarnicki said.

The firefighters lost in the collapse of the World Trade Center represent "the worst catastrophe this profession has ever known," said Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, who delivered the keynote address at the memorial service to an estimated audience of 10,000.

Preceding the service on the brilliant and blue fall day was the procession, which organizers said involved an unprecedented number of fire department honor units.

Bill Sankey was in a group of New York City firefighters who marched past the long lines of comrades from across the country and underneath large American flags suspended from tower trucks forming ladder arches across the street.

Seven members of his company, Ladder 2, were killed in the attack. "It was like losing family members," Sankey said. "It's nice to see so many different firefighters, and they're here for the same thing."

Behind the marchers came four firetrucks -- one from New York City, one each from the District and Arlington County, which responded to the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, and one from Shanksville, Pa., the town near where hijacked Flight 93 crashed in a field.

"We're linked forever to that day with our brothers in New York and Arlington," said Rick King, assistant fire chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department.

Inside MCI Center, there were readings and musical performances. A message from President Bush was read. Plaques were unveiled listing the names of all those lost.

Then the names were read one by one, organized alphabetically by state.

Their photographs flashed up on screens, an almost endlessly sad string of lost lives. Among them was Alberto Tirado, a Passaic, N.J., firefighter who died searching for children in an apartment fire in May 2001. His wife, Evelyn, and their four children -- ages 19, 18, 16 and 7 -- stood with pride when his name was read.

Two Maryland firefighters were among those honored. Clarence Kreitzer, 78, a firefighter with the Bowie Volunteer Fire Department, died of a heart attack after assisting at the scene of a deadly tornado in College Park in September 2001. Gilmore Stitley III, 54, a volunteer firefighter in Frederick, died preparing to assist at a fire at the Frederick County fairgrounds in January 2001.

The list of New York firefighters lost was the longest, of course, and John T. Vigiano II's name came toward the end. His father, wearing the dress uniform he wore until he retired from the department, rose to his feet. Inside the white cap were photos of his two boys.