As if in tribute to the men and women who most depend upon its life giving quality, the heavens opened to quench the earth's thirst on October 11. It was the day of Alexandria Fire Department's annual memorial service and wreath laying ceremony.
Sheltered within the chapel of the First Baptist Church, 2923 King St., firefighters, family, friends, and public officials gathered to pay tribute to those who once stood within their ranks and reflect on 2001 — a year like no other.
"It's important for us to stop and reflect on those who have served and passed on," said Alexandria Fire Chief Thomas M. Hawkins, Jr., in opening the ceremonies.
In recognizing the weather conditions that forced the ceremony from its usual site at the firefighters memorial and Circle of Honor in Ivy Hill Cemetery, Hawkins told the overflow audience, "I promised that the weather would be sunny. It just goes to remind me what little control I really have."
Always held at the conclusion of Fire Prevention Week, Alexandria's ceremony drew representatives from fire departments throughout Northern Virginia. To recognize their departments' individual contributions during the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, each was presented with a bronze statute entitled "The Firefighter."
Alexandria's Fire Department was specifically honored, not only with a statuette, but also with the unveiling of a four foot bronze plaque donated by Thomas Bowling, CEO, of Ivy Hill Cemetery, to honor all those who have given their lives in the performance of their duties.
INSCRIBED WITH "A Firefighter's Prayer" it will be placed at the memorial in the cemetery. "It's the service not the setting that's important," Bowling said as the bronze memorial was unveiled.
Bowling noted that last week more than 100 families arrived at Reagan Washington National Airport to be part of ceremonies at the National Firefighters Memorial. "For four days they were personally taken care of by firefighters and their families from the Alexandria Fire Department," he pointed out.
"Normally, in any given year 60 or 70 firefighters die in the line of duty nationwide. That number was 450 in 2001," Bowling stated. "We all owe a debt of gratitude to those that cared for the arriving families. They did it on their own time. It was truly an act of compassion."
Jeanette Little served as the keynote speaker for this year's observance. On Dec. 17, 2001, she and her children were trapped in their burning home on Orchard Street. The fire had started from a holiday candle in an upstairs bedroom where the children had taken it while she was in the kitchen cooking.
When she heard the screams she rushed into the flaming room to get them out. The smoke detectors had been disarmed. "We were going to replace the batteries the next day," she related.
Even though she and her son were hospitalized with burns, she attributes their survival to the actions of the firefighters. "I can not say enough in support of the firefighters. We would not be here today if it were not for them," she said.
The department and its members were also heralded by Vice Mayor William C. Cleveland. "I am in awe of the fire department. The firefighter is truly on the front lines," he exclaimed.
"Last year at the Pentagon, the police were coming out, the Army was coming out, the Navy, Marines, and Air Force were all coming out. The firefighters were going in. Firefighters are the true heros. They are there for us. And, we have to be there for them," Cleveland emphasized.
"Thank you for putting your lives on the line every day for us. The citizens of the City of Alexandria and the City Council salute you," he said.
AT THE COMMENCEMENT of the program representatives of Embassy Suites Hotel and Stella's Restaurant presented Hawkins with donations to the department's education program. Embassy Suites raised $7,200 through a golf tournament and Stella's held a silent auction that brought in $8,000.
Roll Call of The Fallen was read by Deputy Fire Chief James Gower, while an active and retired firefighter brought forward a rose to place in the silver horn as Richard Scott Blair played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes. Those recognized as having died in the last year were Captain Arthur J. Simpson and firefighters Louis Farri and George L. Pugh. Farri died of a job-related illness on May 21, 2002, according to the program.
As the wreath was placed at the alter, taps were played by Alexandria firefighter Matt Craig of Station 202. Chief Fire Marshal Michael Conner, served as the master of ceremonies and offered the closing remarks. The Reverend Elbert Ransom delivered both the invocation and benediction.
Also in attendance were various members of City Council, city staff, and U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8).