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'An especially tough year': Howard County salutes fallen firefighters with bells, bagpipes

Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services' 3rd Annual Honor and Remembrance Ceremony for Fire and EMS Services is celebrated at the Garden of Valor at Crest Lawn Memorial Gardens. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Celeste Flynn and Beverly Ditch listened silently as a bell tolled and bagpipes blared in a Marriottsville cemetery Sunday.

The women, united by the loss of a firefighting family member in the line of duty, each accepted a white rose from a uniformed firefighter.

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More than 100 turned out for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services’ third annual honor and remembrance ceremony, under a towering American flag hoisted high by a pair of ladder trucks at Crest Lawn Memorial Gardens.

Flynn’s husband, Nathan E. Flynn, died after falling through the floor of a burning house in Clarksville on July 23 — becoming the first career Howard County firefighter to be killed in the line of duty.

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The 34-year-old Howard County firefighter who was killed when he fell through the floor of a burning Clarksville home this week was posthumously promoted to the lieutenant rank, the department said. Firefighter Nathan Flynn, a Havre de Grace resident, will be buried on Saturday.

Sunday would have been his 35th birthday, his wife said.

“It makes it extra emotional,” she said.

Ditch’s father, Charles P. Ditch, and a fellow Ellicott City volunteer firefighter, Joseph A. Stigler, were killed more than 65 years earlier, on Christmas Day, 1953, when a chimney fell on them during a large house fire on Columbia Pike.

The 80-year-old Arbutus woman was a teenager at the time. Christmas, she said, has never been the same.

“It’s something you never forget,” Ditch said. “Even after all these years.”

Losing Flynn this summer made it “an especially tough year” for the Fire Department, Interim Howard County Fire Chief Daniel G. Merson said.

Allan H. Kittleman told the crowd gathered at the Garden of Valor on the cemetery grounds that he hadn’t truly grasped the sacrifices firefighters and their families make until he took over as Howard County executive in 2014 and saw their efforts firsthand.

He referred to Flynn’s death, and the death in January 2015 of Capt. Erik P. Steciak, a Bel Air paramedic and longtime volunteer with the West Friendship Volunteer Fire Department who was killed while helping a motorist during a snowstorm.

“I don’t think I understood what our firefighters go through,” Kittleman said. “I’ll be here 60 years in Howard County next month … but I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand the full commitment.”

Kittleman and Merson promised that the county would devote all the resources it could to ensuring the volunteer and career firefighters have the equipment and training needed to do their jobs safely.

“We’re going to give every tool that we can, every training that we can, every piece of equipment that we possibly have available to our personnel, so that they can do their job to deliver services to the public,” the interim chief said.

Kittleman had a message for both the firefighters and families present.

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“We will continue to support our firefighters, career and volunteer,” he said. “And I want the families to know that we will never forget.”

Officials from the county Fire Department and the area’s volunteer companies read the names of the dozens of other fallen firefighters from over the years. The Marriotts Ridge High School Chamber Choir sang the national anthem, and the Fire Brigade Pipes & Drums of Greater Baltimore played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.

Battalion Chief Stephen M. Hardesty explained the century-old history of the “three fives,” a New York Fire Department tradition of saluting fallen members with 15 bell rings, in three successive sets of five.

Ringing the fire bell — which was placed amid roses and a firefighter’s hat on a table at the front of the service — was a way to “remember and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in giving their lives while serving others,” Hardesty said.

Lt. Brandon Thibeault, a paramedic who lives in Forest Hill, was Flynn’s supervising officer.

He brought his children, Reagan, 6, and Keegan, 4, to the ceremony. They are friends with Flynn’s children, Breccan, Connor and Teagan, and stepchildren, Alex and Gavin, he said.

Thibeault described Flynn as a dear friend devoted to his family and his work. If Flynn were at Sunday’s ceremony, he said, he probably would have cracked a joke to lighten the mood.

“He’d probably shake his head,” Thibeault said. “But he’d be glad people were there for him.”

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