EMMITSBURG — Family after family took the solemn walk Sunday to receive an American flag and red rose, each pausing for a moment to feel the nation's gratitude for their loved ones, fallen firefighters who died in the line of duty.
Among the 107 first responders honored at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service were two from Maryland: Gene Meir Kirchner, 25, of Reisterstown and David R. Barr Jr., 64, of Port Deposit.
"For us, it's just another step in our journey of mourning," said Kirchner's sister, Shelly Brezicki of Hampstead. "It's been 17 months since Gene's death and our hope is that this helps us to find some closure."
Kirchner, a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company, died May 2, 2013, eight days after he was injured while he searched for victims in a house fire. It was one of more than 3,000 emergency calls Kirchner had responded to during his decade of service with the fire company.
Barr, a Perryville fire police captain, died on Nov. 7, about two weeks after he was hit by a vehicle while directing traffic at an accident scene.
"It was a beautiful tribute to beautiful people," said Barr's widow, Donna. "It's like you've reached the crest of the mountain and now you can go back down the mountain at your pace and start your own healing."
The ceremony — which drew 5,000 from across the country — featured a keynote address from Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland and a recorded message from President Barack Obama. The service paid tribute to the 19 Arizona firefighters from the elite Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew who were killed June 30, 2013, in the Yarnell Hill wildfire.
Also honored were the 10 volunteer firefighters who died April 17, 2013, at the massive fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
Nearly all the firefighters remembered Sunday lost their lives in 2013, although a handful were honored for formally recognized line-of-duty deaths from previous years. The oldest was 76. The youngest was 19.
"We must always remember that when a firefighter loses his or her life in the line of duty not just the family — theirs is the most personal — but all Americans suffer a loss," Hoyer said. "They represent the best of America."
Hoyer also mentioned a $1.3 million grant the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation was recently awarded from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The money will fund research for the group's Everyone Goes Home program, which focuses on ways to reduce firefighter deaths due to suicide, cancer and heart attacks, the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths.
Obama said he wanted to send his appreciation and condolences on behalf of the country, and tell the families of the fallen first responders, "We stand with you."
"Firefighters run toward danger," Obama said. "And every year we lose too many of them."
The somber ceremony, which lasted about 21/2 hours, featured the unveiling of a plaque listing the names of 2013's fallen firefighters. Above the simple stone Fallen Firefighter Memorial, two giant American flags waved in the breeze, suspended by fire truck ladders.
At the entrance to the memorial, a firefighter rang a large bell with a series of five strikes, an age-old tradition signifying the death of his fallen comrades.
Brezicki, who also is a volunteer firefighter, said she wants her brother to be remembered as "a hero, a soft spoken peacemaker, and definitely not a guy who was looking for any sense of applause for what he did.
"He did what he did because he wanted to make a difference," she said.
Donna Barr said her husband was a family man who believed in "family and community first."
"He was always there for everyone whenever they needed anything," she said.
Barr's grandson, Nicholas Barr of Port Deposit, remembered him the same way, "He was a very giving man. He put everyone before himself. I am proud to make to him proud. I want to carry on his legacy."