Although the attendance to the National Memorial Service in Washington, D.C., was less than anticipated, Don Gibbs did not expect the magnitude of emotions that came through.
Central Emergency Services sent Gibbs, an engineer-EMT III, to the service to honor fallen firefighters on Oct. 6.
Gibbs asked permission to attend the service in the capital.
"It was important for our department to pay respects to the families," he said.
His trip was sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Fire Chiefs Association and the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary.
Alaska also had representatives from the Alaska State Fire Marshal's office, Delta Junction Fire Department and the Anchorage Alaska Honor Guard.
Hopefully, this event will only happen once, he said.
The memorial service and parade are usually held annually at the site of the National Fallen Firefighters Monument in Emmitsburg, Md., which was designated by Congress as the official national monument to all fallen firefighters.
However, this year's service was held in the capital to allow more space because of the extensive loss of firefighters in the year 2001.
Around 100,000 people throughout the nation were expected to attend, Gibbs said. It ended up being around 12,000 -- a lot less than planned.
The parade route was lined with firefighters from departments that did not have a line-of-duty death and sectioned off by the states from which the departments came.
"What would be nice is to have a memorial where we honor no one for that year -- never have a line of duty death," Gibbs said.
"I wouldn't say it's impossible, but not likely."
The Fire Department New York led the procession, with Pipes and Drums following, along with the other fire departments that had suffered a line-of-duty death. The families of lost firefighters then joined in the procession, then state fire departments followed in as the procession passed.
The memorial service was held at the MCI Center. Emergency service leaders joined federal, state and local government officials in honoring fallen fire heroes and their survivors.
"People from all walks read from the Role of Honor," Gibbs said.
It is a list of all the firefighters who died in 2001. Each individual's name and department was read by state.
The names of 446 firefighters were read, Gibbs said -- 343 were from the World Trade Center disaster. The number of firefighters who died in 2001 was drastically higher from the 102 who died in 2000.
One story during the service that struck Gibbs was several New York firefighters who died on Father's Day. Their deaths left 17 children without fathers.
"It shows just what we place on the line every day," he said.
But what impacted Gibbs the most during the trip was not during the service, but during a moment of passing in the airport on his way home.
He met the widow of a lost firefighter.
"She thanked me for coming," he said. "It was an honor for me to have come, she told me.
"It was my honor," he told her. "It was my privilege to be there to honor the heroes.
"She told me her husband was no more a hero than all of us -- he was just put in a position," he said.
Standing in the airport with the widow changed his life forever, he said.
"It brought it home. I will never go back to work or respond to another call without thinking about that -- and what I am leaving at home."
The reality is nothing is guaranteed or promised, Gibbs said.
About all of the firefighters from all the different departments, he said, "It's one family -- one team -- always brothers and sisters."
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