Fire Department salutes 356 heroes

The ceremony, swelled by Sept. 11 tragedy, lauds FDNY personnel who died over the last 2 years

Sunday, October 13, 2002


It should rain on a day like this, when thousands upon thousands of pairs of black boots march together for one purpose: Memorial. But it should also be a happy day, a time to remember, even move on a little.

And that's exactly what it was yesterday around Madison Square Garden, which was the only place big enough to hold the Fire Department's Memorial Day this year. Normally, they hold it near the department's memorial on Riverside Drive.

Normally, they aren't handing out medals to 356 families.

In a ceremony marked by a loss of words and silence, standing ovations and hugs, the names of the Fire Department personnel who have died on active duty over the last two years were read aloud. The final name read was Keith Roma, a fire patrolman from Richmond.

When Roma's name was read, the crowd broke into five minutes of standing and clapping. Every time it seemed as though the ovation would end, someone would start screaming and it would get louder and louder. Young firefighters dressed in their crisp uniforms cried. Mothers held their children, gently patting their heads.

SOMBER PROCESSION The morning started around 9, when an estimated 75,000 firefighters from around the world gathered 20 blocks south of the Garden. Led by the Emerald Society's Pipe Band, 356 firefighters carried large American flags, each one a symbol of the rescue workers killed in the last two years.

"I just felt like I needed to be here," said a starry-eyed Clayton Boyer, a young firefighter from Santa Cruz, Calif.

They marched up Eighth Avenue, settling in front of the Garden in the pouring rain to watch the ceremony.

Inside, it was a parade of white gloves. Old friends from different boroughs met in the hallways, then settled into their seats. It was so quiet inside, quiet like a mass.

Hung from the rafters, parallel to the retired numbers of all the great Knicks and Rangers that had played in the building, were the faces of the lost heroes.

"They were heroes because they were firefighters, not because they died," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "They were heroes because of what they did while they were alive."

Bloomberg's underlying message, as well as the messages of everyone who spoke, was not one of grief. It was a message of hope, of pleading to everyone in the building to live on.

"Our mourning will live until we die, their heroism will live forever," said former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. One of the city's strongest voices following the attacks, Giuliani seemed to search for the right words through much of his speech.

"I wish, uh, I wish that Father [Mychal] Judge were here, so he could tell me the right thing to say," Giuliani said. BLOWN AWAY

Despite the sad undertone to the ceremony, there was a feeling that this was the biggest and most important tribute the department had paid to its fallen members in the last 13 months.

"It just blew everything away," said Firefighter Gerry Koenig of Rescue Co. 5.

"The whole spirit of this day was so upbeat," said Firefighter Thomas DelPino, who works with Ladder Co. 85 in New Dorp. Ladder 85 paid special tribute to LT. CHARLES MARGIOTTA, a popular and funny man who was off-duty and went into the disaster with Rescue 5.

DelPino and Koenig are part of the Fire Department's family, a group of "brothers" who share everything. They were two of the 20,000 reasons in Madison Square Garden yesterday that the memory of 356 rescue workers will never fade.

"There is a living memorial to those who died in the line of duty," Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said. "And it's you."

 Ryan Lillis / Staten Island Advance