Memorials Draw Thousands
By Howard Schwach
Those in Rockaway who have never before seen the panoply of a full Fire Department memorial service or funeral have unfortunately seen more than their share recently, as mourners and community members alike have come out by the thousands to pay homage to those firefighters who gave their lives at the World Trade Center on September 11.
A memorial held last Saturday for firefighter Steve Belson at Beach Channel High School drew at least two thousand people. The auditorium was overwhelmed by the turnout early and even the large school lobby was near filled to capacity by the appointed hour for the start of the memorial.
Similar memorials and funerals at St. Francis De Sales, St. Camillus and St. Thomas More drew like crowds and blocked traffic on Rockaway streets for hours.
"There is something compelling about the memorial ceremonies for the firefighters," one young man watching the ceremonies at St. Francis De Sales with his young son on his shoulders told The Wave. "I did not know the Chief, but I really felt that I had to be here to show my son what heroes these men were."
"There is a certain closure for everybody in one of these ceremonies," he added.
For most, the ceremony is indeed at once cleansing and moving.
First, come the muffled drums and pipes of the Fire Department’s Emerald Society Pipe Band.
Next, fire apparatus from the firefighter’s engine or truck company. Often, the truck carries the coffin of the fallen firefighters. Recently, however, the trucks have empty, a reminder of how many of their bodies will never be found.
In fact, the bodies of two Rockaway firefighters, William Johnston and John Heffernan, were found early last week in the rubble of a staircase in the collapsed building.
The memorial ceremonies and the funerals for those who fell, not only from the fire department, but from the police and from people who worked in the buildings as well, will continue into the end of this month and perhaps into the next.
"It is important for the community to support these memorials," a firefighter’s wife told The Wave. "Not only for the families of those who died or who remain missing, but for themselves."