Monday, February 06, 2006

Today I cried.

Today was a sad day. Fire Chief Lewis ward was buried with full fire service honors. For those of you who have never witnessed a firefighter funeral, it is the most sorrowful event you will ever attend. Steeped in tradition, the fire service mourns the loss of one of its own like no other.

Along with the heart felt sorrow today I was overcome with pride. The camaraderie and brotherhood that is the fire service is absolutely uncoupled. The honor guard posted at either side of the casket, never left their brother's side. The fire trucks themselves seemed to mourn his loss with their streaming black banners. The flag draped casket rode atop his Engine flanked by his loyal firefighters. The procession of fire trucks stretched as far as the eye could see and was escorted by police all the way to the cemetery. Nearly every street corner had other fire trucks, ambulances or police cars stopped with emergency lights on and crews standing at attention saluting as the funeral passed. As the truck carrying Lewis stopped in front of his fire house for a lingering 30 seconds, I found myself weeping again. A sheriff's department helicopter hovered 150 ft off the ground at the entrance to the cemetery. He held that hover for the nearly 20 minutes it took for the entire procession to enter.

The gravesite ceremony was no less heartbreaking as the flag was folded and presented to his wife and his very seasoned fire helmet was presented to his son. A bagpiper clad in the traditional Scottish kilt played "Amazing Grace". He did not stop playing the tune. Instead, he just turned and slowly walked away continuing to play as he faded off into the distance. The silence broke as Baptist Hospital's Lifeflight helicopter appeared over the tree line. As it approached very low, it stopped in a hover, bowed its nose and smoothly disappeared. The "final call" was my part of the funeral. It is a very small part but it is usually the part where everyone breaks from silent sobbing to audible crying. It is a traditional gesture in the fire service to "call" the deceased one "final" time on the radio. This is done three times with long pauses in between. Upon receiving no answer the dispatcher strikes tones and announces to all units that the deceased has completed assignment and returned home. He is then placed "officially" out of service for the final time. It is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Lewis was my friend of 13 years, and I cried almost uncontrollably as I struggled to compose myself for the one minute radio transmission. I was sad but very proud to have been a part in rendering honors to the best firefighter I've ever seen.

I've fought fire alongside Lewis more times than I can count. I've watched him grab a quick sip of water and a new air bottle and go right back into the fire while me and other firefighters were laid out on tarps, physically exhausted. The man was a machine. Many firefighters go their entire career and never single-handedly rescue anyone from a fire. Not Lewis. There's a little boy named Caleb who will grow into a man because Lewis was there to save him. I have said on numerous occasions before, long before he died, that if I had to pick one man to follow into hell with a hose, it would be Lewis Ward. He was truly the best firefighter I've ever seen and he will be deeply missed.