Firefighter laid to rest in service steeped in tradition

On a perfect spring day in Baltimore County, surrounded by hundreds of his brother and sister firefighters and mourned in prayers thousands of years old, a hero was laid to rest Sunday.

Gene M. Kirchner, the 25-year-old Reisterstown volunteer firefighter who died Thursday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center of injuries suffered when he tried in vain to rescue a man trapped in a burning home, was buried in front of the Fallen Heroes Memorial at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens after funeral services at Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills.

Firefighters from as far away as North Carolina and New York crowded the synagogue, lined the procession route and saluted the casket at graveside before their comrade was buried.

They came to say farewell to a young man whose sister remembered him as a "fun uncle," whose friends remembered him as the kid who always wore green so he could be distinguished from his twin brother and whose chief simply called him a hero.

"There is no greater love than when someone lays down their life for a friend," Chief Robert Murray Sr. of the Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company told mourners in the packed synagogue, where uniformed firefighters filled about half of the roughly 1,000 seats.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff, who conducted the service, described Kirchner in a single Yiddish word: mensch. Sharff defined the term as "a good guy, a person who does right by others."

Kirchner was one of the firefighters who responded April 24 to a house fire on Hanover Road. A volunteer since he reached adulthood, he apparently rushed to the second floor in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue an occupant trapped inside — later identified as resident Steven Starr, 58.

When a county response team arrived, they found Kirchner unconscious. He was taken to Northwest Hospital Center in critical condition, and later transferred to Shock Trauma. A little more than a week later, he died of his injuries.

Kirchner received a sendoff Sunday that was grounded in the traditions of the firefighting service.

Michael Robinson, division chief of the Baltimore County Fire Department, said each of the paid professional and volunteer firefighters had turned out dressed in their Class A uniforms — only worn on ceremonial occasions. Each firefighter's badge was taped over in black as a sign of respect, he said.

Robinson said Kirchner was involved in the company's junior firefighter program for children ages 14-16, which included two of the chief's children.

"My kids really liked the guy. He took an interest in them," Robinson said. "He was in a family that's steeped in tradition related to the fire service."

After KIrchner was posthumously awarded the department's Medal of Honor by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and fire Chief John J. Hohman, sister Shelly Brezicki spoke for the family. A volunteer firefighter herself, Brezicki told firefighters and civilians that "Green Gene" was the family peacemaker and a young man who could always be counted on to take his mother to bingo.

"Rest in peace, my little brother," she said from behind the flag-draped casket.

When the service ended, the coffin was wheeled out of Har Sinai as dozens of bagpipers in full regalia played the Irish patriotic tune "The Minstrel Boy." In keeping with tradition, the casket was loaded onto a firetruck to begin the procession to the cemetery.

Along the route, which led down Greenspring Avenue and cross-county on Padonia Road, fire trucks and other vehicles parked at roadside at various spots, bearing the logos of departments from all over Maryland — and some from out of state.

Uniformed firefighters from Arbutus, Grasonville, Berwyn Heights and dozens of other communities stood at attention by their vehicles and saluted as the procession passed. Local residents stood by the road and waved American flags. Kirchner's co-workers from the Butler Transport Service, an ambulance company where he worked as an emergency medical technician, lined up to say goodbye in their bright red shirts.

At the graveside services under a bight blue sky, a broadcast came over the fire radio announcing that Kirchner had completed his last watch on May 2 — the day he died. Five bells were rung three times as a signal that a firefighter had died in the line of duty — a tradition that dates to the days before radio, Robinson said.

As "Taps" was played, the guard of honor folded the flag that had covered the coffin and gave it to Hohman, who presented it to Kirchner's mother, Paulette Ohana, who caressed it. Kirchner's helmet, traditionally given to the family after a firefighter's death in the line of duty, was presented to his twin brother, Will, a fellow firefighter who wore the dress uniform of the Reisterstown company.

As Kirchner's casket was slowly lowered into the ground, his mother — sitting between Brezicki and her sister, April Lichtenberg — broke down in tears. But she composed herself as the rabbi recited the ancient prayer known as the Mourner's Kaddish and was the first of the family to carry out the Jewish tradition of pouring a small bit of soil onto the coffin.

"It's a great mitzvah we do because the dead cannot perform it for themselves," Sharff said.

After the funeral, Kirchner's cousin Oshrat Ohana of Rockville said the services had been "very touching."

"It was really nice to see a merging of the firefighters and the Jewish tradition together," she said. "It really sums Gene up."

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