Annual memorial honors 190 fallen firefighters from the US and Canada
Of the 190 names added this year, 153 died of work-related cancers and 14 from cancers scientifically linked to 9/11
By Liz Forster
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — When Alexander Bingham graduated from the Houston firefighter training academy in 2016, one of his classmates was missing.
Steven Whitfield, a cadet in Bingham's class, had perished in a training accident in March 2016 and would not graduate alongside those who had become his brothers.
Bingham and his classmates still mourn Whitfield's death, but on Saturday, Bingham said, he felt uplifted by the celebration honoring Whitfield and 189 other firefighters during this year's Fallen Fire Fighter's Memorial ceremony in Memorial Park.
"It means a whole lot to our class, not just me, to be here when they put his name on the wall," Bingham said. "Now that we are all firefighters after two years of training, I feel bad to be here, but it feels good at the same time that we can honor him.
"We all still miss him," Bingham added, looking toward the polished Wall of Honor that now bears Whitfield's name.
Whitfield and the others whose names are inscribed on the wall were members of the International Association of Fire Fighters union who died on duty or later of lung, heart, respiratory and other health complications caused by exposure to toxic substances on the job.
Of the 190 names added this year, 153 died of work-related cancers and 14 from cancers scientifically linked to toxic exposure during cleanup at Ground Zero, the site of the 9/11 attacks.
In all, 7,600 members' names have been etched on the walls since the memorial was erected 31 years ago.
The Wall of Honor "is special," said Mike Smaldino, coordinator for the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial. "Having worked with my first lieutenant, whose name is on here, I remember every day what he worked for and what his work ethic is. He has a story just like everyone else on the wall."
During the Saturday service, the names of the firefighters who perished in the last year were called off one by one. Their families each were given a flag in their honor, showing the value of their service to the 5,000 attending IAFF members and their families from across the U.S. and Canada.
Some of those 5,000 flew, others drove and some rode motorcycles.
San Antonio Firefighter Brian Ward rode as a member of Smoke & Iron, a national motorcycle group for firefighters.
Ward, president of the San Antonio chapter, has attended the memorial for two years with his fellow chapter members, paying tribute with every rev of their engines to those who lost their lives.
"We're here to show our love and respect for those who have left us. That's the whole point: Never forget," said Ward.
The camaraderie among the thousands of attendees and the 307,000 IAFF members was particularly amplified this year because of the service of those who withstood Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and who are fighting massive wildland fires in the West and in western Canada.
IAFF President Harold Schaitberger and Secretary-treasurer Ed Kelly went to Texas and Florida in the wake of the hurricanes. They found destruction, but more important for Schaitberger, they felt proud of the local departments' unrelenting dedication to their communities.
"Those recent trips to Texas, Florida and now to this great memorial have only served to reaffirm what I have felt all along - that we are members of a proud, strong and vibrant family," Schaitberger said. "The IAFF family, a union that doesn't back down when things get tough."
After his speech, many of the firefighters migrated to Jack Quinn's Irish Pub to continue to honor the fallen until early morning.
"We are so honored that they chose us as their place to celebrate after the memorial," said Jack Quinn's manager Meredith Klube. "Since they started coming here about 15 years ago, we have embraced them, and they have embraced us."
Likewise, Colorado Springs firefighters were trying to make the visitors' stay as remarkable as possible.
"It's special to be here in Colorado Springs. We are honored to be here for the families who visit us here in Colorado Springs," Smaldino said. "They're here for a somber reason, so we want to make sure they can do anything and everything they want to while they are here."
Copyright 2017 The Gazette
- Fallen Firefighters