First responders and families from across Maryland gathered Sunday in Annapolis to honor 10 firefighters and emergency services providers who died in the line of duty, including those who succumbed after contracting the coronavirus.
Sunday afternoon’s Maryland Fire-Rescue Services Memorial Program marked the first time the program was held with families attending in person since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020. The event is typically held the first Sunday of each June, meaning last year’s program only had a handful of participants due to restrictions on crowd gatherings amid the pandemic.
Christine Uhlhorn, the former fire chief of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, spoke about the difficulties families endured having a loved one die in the line of duty during the ongoing health crisis. The program honored seven first responders who died since June 2019 and three who officials said were identified as having died in the line of duty during the 1930s and 1940s.
“I can’t imagine how difficult and painful this year and last [year] have been for the families of the loved ones that we are here to honor today,” Uhlhorn said. “But I hope they can take comfort knowing that we are here to support them during these challenging times.”
For the families, it was the first time they could honor their fallen relatives, including those who died of the disease itself, in person since the outbreak.
Among the attendees were the family of Lt. William Sheffield, a Baltimore City firefighter who worked in the Brooklyn area of the city and died Jan. 27 after contracting COVID-19.
The 60-year-old lieutenant had been a firefighter for 28 years and had lost his wife, Baltimore City Police Officer Crystal Sheffield, in August 2002. She died in a car crash while responding to a call of an officer who needed help in West Baltimore.
In a statement read by Stuart Nathan, the former Baltimore City fire commissioner, current city Fire Chief Niles Ford said William Sheffield’s loss will be felt by city residents and in the department itself.
“Lt. Sheffield was loved by many, from those in the department and in the community,” Ford said. “Our loss is huge and we will be forever grateful for his commitment to the residents of Baltimore City and for the opportunity to spend time with such a selfless public servant.”
He was one of several emergency responders who died after contracting the coronavirus; such losses are considered line-of-duty deaths after federal legislation that passed in August established a presumption that all first responders who become disabled or die from contracting the coronavirus did so because they sustained personal injury in the line of duty.
In addition to Sheffield, Nathan said, two other first responders, Jeffrey Schaffer and Bryan Hamilton, died from COVID-19.
Schaffer was a paramedic with the Taneytown Volunteer Fire Company who died Aug. 10, 2020, while Hamilton was a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Naval District Washington Fire Department who died Jan. 1.
Marty Cropper — the wife of the late Ocean City Fire Capt. Leroy Cropper Jr., who died while battling a hotel fire in the Eastern Shore town in 1995 — spoke on behalf of the families of those who died, offering them hope and solace through her speech.
“The heart pain we all have after the death of our loved one will never go away,” Cropper said. “But over time, it will soften.”
She added that those who have lost a loved one should accept the help of others and that their recovery will take time and patience.
“Your journey of healing will have its ups and downs,” Cropper said. “But deep valleys allow us to enjoy and treasure the views from the mountaintop.”
Dennis Beard, president of the Maryland Fire-Rescue Services Memorial Foundation, said that while the pandemic “was a time of uncertainty,” the fact that families gathered Sunday for the memorial program was an example of resilience during a time of unrest and heartbreak.
Before the 10 names were added to the memorial wall, which sits on Calvert Street between Bladen and Northwest streets, Beard said he hoped that the affected families will continue to cherish their time being a part of the statewide firefighter family.
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“I hope we’ll never take the simple things for granted,” Beard said. “I hope we’ll never let our times together become ordinary.”