Firefighters' Ritual of Grief
Is Now Somber Routine
by Dan Barry
Copyright © November 30, 2001, New York Times.
FRANKLIN SQUARE, N.Y., Nov. 28 — The three firefighters from Illinois, all dressed in their formal blues, got off at the Long Island Rail Road station in New Hyde Park and squinted into the midmorning light. With only a vague idea of where they were, they flagged down a taxi.
One of the firefighters read from a small piece of paper to explain that they had to get to St. Catherine of Sienna Roman Catholic Church. On New Hyde Park Road. In some place called Franklin Square.
The driver, a woman, nodded in weary acknowledgment. "It never stops," she said.
It has seemed that way for 11 weeks now, 11 weeks that might as well have been draped in black-and-purple bunting. There have been hundreds and hundreds of memorial services for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, including scores for New York City firefighters. Those elaborate firefighter farewells have come to symbolize a country in mourning, and have drawn firefighters from around the world.
But the emotionally draining ceremonies are held so often — they average four a day, although two dozen were held on one Saturday — that a reluctant air of the routine has settled upon a once-singular ritual. City firefighters used to take dutiful pride in being able to name every colleague killed in the line of duty; now they have attended so many services in such a short time that one blends into another, and another.
Still, the ritual endures. The Fire Department's ceremonial unit and new "funeral desk" try to overcome challenges like the absence of a body — once unheard of and now so common — to ensure that each firefighter is given proper tribute. Every step is stage-managed, from the first beat on a black-clothed drum to the climactic pass of a Police Department helicopter overhead. The mourning family members must see a wall of white-gloved, saluting firefighters. A lone bagpiper must play "Amazing Grace."
Today, at the small St. Catherine of Sienna Church here on Long Island, there was yet another service, this one for a firefighter named Robert Evans. It was the 300th service for a firefighter lost in the disaster; it would have been the 299th service, if not for the one held an hour earlier for Firefighter Brian Sweeney in Merrick, just a few miles away.
The service was also the eighth held for a member of the Lower Manhattan firehouse that includes Engine Company 33 and Ladder Company 9; there are still two more to go. Earlier this week, Firefighter Joseph Cioffi sat in the firehouse's kitchen — adorned with rows of Mass cards bearing photographs of dead colleagues — and struggled to remember which was the first of the many services he had attended. ("It was a Saturday; it poured.")
"It was really something to see a Fire Department funeral, for one guy, on one day," said Firefighter Cioffi, who looked in sore need of a rest. "But sad to say, you're starting to hear a lot of the same things. Sad to say, they're almost like routine now."
At 11 this morning, an hour before the noon service, the parts to another firefighter's farewell began to come together.
Bagpipers limbered up in the church parking lot, the loud sighs of their instruments echoing off the walls of the church school. One bagpiper, Tom Gerondel, estimated that he had been to 80 to 100 services since mid-September; another bagpiper, Michael Tully, said that he had been to "too many to count," and that he was 27 years old.
Inside the church, with room for just 400, fire officials taped "reserved" signs to pews and balanced enlarged photographs of Robert Evans on stands near the altar. Photograph displays have become common at the many services where there is no body. In fact, no remains have been recovered for any of the 10 men lost from the storied firehouse on Great Jones Street in Manhattan where Firefighter Evans worked, the house known as "Bowery U."
By 11:41, it was time for the firefighters to create the wall of uniform blue that signals solidarity with the grieving family. "Gentlemen, make your way across the street," a fire official shouted. But many anticipated his order — they had followed it so many times before — and were already in place, their conversations uninterrupted, their cigarettes still glowing.
At 11:52, the bagpipers and drummers walked north past the church, their instruments silent.
At 11:53, Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen leaned over to adjust the strap of a firefighter holding an American flag. Only the soft fussing of a toddler wearing an "I Love My Country" button disturbed the quiet.
At noon, the bells of St. Catherine's began to toll, and the funeral procession started the slow march south on New Hyde Park Road. First came three Nassau County police motorcycles, then five senior fire officials, including one holding an Engine 33 helmet as though it were a relic. And then a fire engine, escorted by Firefighter Cioffi and other Engine 33 colleagues of Firefighter Evans.
The scene was in imitation of long- held ritual. For example, there is one Fire Department engine fitted to serve as a caisson, but it has not been used since the terrorist attack because it could not possibly appear at all the services. For this and other reasons, including the awkward absence of a body, the men of Engine 33 walked beside a rig bearing the name of the Westchester town of Larchmont.
Behind the engine followed the mother, stepfather and other relatives of Firefighter Evans, who was 36 years old and single. As they disappeared into the church, the outdoor sounds of "Amazing Grace" ended, and the indoor sounds of "Be Not Afraid" began. Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has attended so many of these services, arrived in time to join the somber flow.
At 12:12, a fire official shouted an order ("Detail dismissed") just as the first words of the Mass ("In the name of the Father, and of the Son") poured from speakers set up for the hundreds who could not squeeze into the church.
Some firefighters gathered inside C. J. Wellington's Restaurant, directly across the street from the church, to drink at the bar, in full embrace of the mourning ritual. Others remained standing in the street, chatting among themselves, half-listening to the homily that imagined the eternal hero's welcome this dead firefighter would receive in heaven. ("You're one of those guys from Sept. 11. Because of you, my son came home that day.") Nearby, a black-sheathed drum rested against a "No Parking" sign.
At 12:45, in the church basement where the after-Mass reception would be held, there were cookies laid out on platters, beer and soda nestled in ice, and tables covered with red-white-and-blue cloths.
In the otherwise empty hall, three members of a military honor guard unit from Niagara Falls were resting, at ease; they have stood erect at more firefighter services than any of them can count.
"I lost track," said Joy Holland, a sergeant in the Air National Guard. She has attended so many now, she said, that she knows to wait about 90 minutes before returning to the front of the church for the ceremony's close.
At 1:06, the eulogy began, and recollections that distinguished Robert Evans from the other 342 firefighters who died, and from every other human being, echoed down New Hyde Park Road. He loved martial arts, especially the skills of Bruce Lee. He loved challenges; as a teenager, he once climbed the water tower that looms over Franklin Square. He was so hyperactive sometimes that his firehouse nickname was Jerry Lewis. And he was a good firefighter — quick off the floor, as some firefighters say.
Some dignitaries spoke, the last of whom was Mr. Giuliani. As he has done so often before, the New York City mayor asked the congregation to give Firefighter Evans a standing ovation. The applause ringing through the speakers sounded like thunder, and signaled the beginning of the end. Bottles were put down, cigarettes put out, drums and flags picked up.
At 2, the relatives of Firefighter Evans walked down the aisle to pause on the church's stone steps, where they were surrounded by hundreds of saluting, stone-faced firefighters. At 2:02, the Police Department helicopter flew past, prompting the pipe and drum corps to begin playing "America the Beautiful." The funeral procession turned down a side street, bound for a basement reception of cookies, coffee and beer.
At 2:08, a fire official shouted, "Detail dismissed." And the firefighters of New York relaxed as much as they could, given that services for their colleagues will extend into the new year.
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