What began as a pilgrimage to grieve for a fallen brother is now a promise by firefighters from Clearfield and Lawrence Township to remember the sacrifices of those they lost in the line of duty and to honor the families who were left behind.
A contingent of 12 members from the Clearfield Fire Department and Lawrence Township Fire Co. No. 1 attended the 37th annual National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend, held Oct. 5-7 in Emmitsburg, Md.
The event takes place on the grounds of the National Fire Academy, which is also home to a stone monument and the wall and walk of remembrance.
Among the group was Clearfield Fire Department member Taylor O’Dell, who joined the department in March, and who served as a flag presenter at the memorial ceremony that culminated the three-day observation.
“I had no idea what I was getting in to. It was an awesome, humbling experience and I’m honored to have been part of it,” she said.
“To see what it meant to the families and to connect to firefighters from all over the country was amazing. I am definitely going back.”
Township members first attended the memorial two years ago to commemorate the 2015 line-of-duty death of Jeffrey Buck.
The 18-year-old was injured when a porch roof collapsed on him at a house fire in Clearfield’s East End. He passed away a few days later at a hospital in Altoona.
According to long-time Lawrence Township Fire Co. No. 1 Officer Bill Armstrong, “That first time, we went to honor Jeffrey, but then we realized it’s also about honoring the families who lost someone, about being there for them.
“It is an incredible, emotional experience and, until you go through a line-of-duty death, you can’t fully understand. The township will go every year.”
O’Dell agreed and noted, “We didn’t do it for ourselves, we went for the families. When Jeffrey died, we couldn’t do it for ourselves (cope with the grief) because we’re were so devastated. The families who were there needed others to step up and support them.”
“The experience showed me that we (the fire service) are not just about putting out fires, but making a connection with the community and the importance of letting the community know we are here for them any time, not just in an emergency,” she added.
O’Dell said she carried one of 103 American flags, which were flown over the U.S. Capitol and the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial prior to the event, that were presented to the families.
Her flag was designated for a Harrisburg firefighter who was killed by a drunk driver while responding to a call.
The survivors also received a personalized badge bearing their loved ones’ names and a single red rose.
Armstrong and the others served as members of the Honor Guard and, at a previous memorial ceremony, Lawrence Township firefighter Dale Trubic was tapped as a family escort.
Comprising the rest of the area delegation were Steven Smith, Scott Wink, Gil Stevenson, Kyle Stevenson and Fire Chief Kevin Graham from the township and Clearfield representatives Pat Collins, Corey Wingate, Andrew Smith, Eric Smith and Fire Chief Todd Kling.
Firefighters, volunteer and career, from all over the United States converge in Emmitsburg each year for the event. Most who come to remember a fallen brother or sister return and join the hundreds of others who give their time as flag presenters, family escorts, part of the honor guard or as a member of the bagpipe and drum corps, Armstrong noted.
He related a story of an encounter with a career firefighter from New York City as the two stood guard during the candlelight ceremony held Saturday evening in the foundation chapel.
“He responded on 9-11 (2001) and, when I asked him about the experience, his face turned white and he told me he couldn’t talk about it. Later, he told me he was at Ground Zero for four days.
He said, “’We were trained to save people, but there was nothing to save,’ and that’s why he keeps coming back,” Armstrong recalled.
Kling said the experience ignited a sense of comradeship and community he wants to extend to this area, including establishing a Clearfield-Lawrence Township Honor Guard that will take part in funerals and other solemn occasions.
“Emotionally, the ceremony took hold of us and, when they read the list of names (of those who died in the line of duty), it really put it in perspective. I won’t miss another one,” Kling said.
“At the end of the weekend, for me, the most important aspect was paying respect to the families. But, we also took away a sense of community, of brotherhood. Those guys whose names were read at the service could just as easily been guys from around here”
“I want to see all the fire companies in our area feel that sense of community and love and to support one another. We all need to stand together, always,” Kling added.
To learn more about the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the memorial weekend and the foundation’s year-round activities and outreach, visit firehero.org.
Armstrong also encouraged the community to view the monument erected in Buck’s memory near the fire hall on Mill Road in Clearfield. It is a smaller replica of the statue in Emmitsburg.