EMMITSBURG — Brenda Pridgen dabbed away another tear as she composed herself to meet President Barack Obama, an encounter that elicited a rush of conflicting emotions for the widow of Baltimore firefighter James E. Bethea.
"My husband would have loved this," Pridgen said of Sunday's memorial service at Mount St. Mary's University for 87 firefighters — including Bethea and Baltimore County firefighter Robert W. Fogle III — who died on the job.
"He was all about the fire service. He lived the fire service, so this would have been a momentous day for him," Pridgen said. At the same time, the ceremony — in which bagpipes wailed and bells tolled — was a reminder of the day last year on which she learned that her husband had died of smoke inhalation after falling through the floor of a vacant rowhouse.
"At the end of the day, everybody doesn't come home," said Pridgen, who was seated near Fogle's widow, Carol, in the university's Knott Arena. "Sometimes things happen and we lose people — really good people, remarkable people, wonderful people, family people, people who are loved."
Obama asked the nation to renew its commitment to preventing fires and making sure to supply firefighters with "equipment and the support that they need to get the job done and to come home safe. That's what we owe every one of you."
Obama spoke for 12 minutes, honoring the members of the "selfless profession" and their families. "You remember them as moms and dads, siblings and spouses, friends and neighbors," the president said. "Today we salute them and remember them as the heroes that they were."
After the speech, the president remained for more than an hour greeting each of the late firefighters' families before returning to a motorcade where he was joined by Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat.
Hoyer, the House minority whip, spoke earlier, telling the audience of about 4,000 that each of the 87 firefighters signified "not only a fallen hero but a family that is grieving."
As the family members reached the end of the receiving line, Obama shook their hands or embraced them. He high-fived some of the children.
Meeting the president will be "a memory that will carry on for the rest of our lives," said Carol Fogle, whose husband died of a heart attack in May 2014 during exercises at Baltimore County's Sparrows Point training facility.
She said it can be easy to forget the risks faced by firefighters and the toll on their families.
"I think on a daily basis our society does, in fact, take it for granted," Fogle said. "However, when there is a crisis or someone has fallen, there is this incredible outpouring of support, whether it's in prayers, whether it's in showing up for the funeral or the visitation or whether it's just acknowledging the sacrifice that was made. And that is a nice human trait," she said.
As they entered the gym, the family members walked between two long lines of a solemn honor guard. Pipe-and-drum units from around the country were also on hand. As the ceremony began, the gym swelled with the sounds of more than 100 bagpipes.
A bronze plaque bearing the names of the fallen firefighters — most of whom died in 2014 — was added to the nearby National Fallen Firefighters Memorial.
Obama also referred to the 32,000 firefighters he said have recently been battling wildfires "from California to North Carolina. Thirteen have lost their lives. And today, we honor them as well."
The ceremony was originally scheduled for outdoors, at the memorial. It was moved inside the arena because of the threat of severe weather.
"Believe it or not, I didn't know the president was going to be here until about two or three days ago," Pridgen said. "My sister-in-law called and told me. I am beyond honored that the year we are celebrating the life of my husband would also be the same year the president of the United States took out time from his schedule to be here."
Pridgen was joined at the service by Bethea's sister, Darlene.
At the time he died, James Bethea was responsible for making sure firefighters were following proper safety procedures at a dwelling fire on East North Avenue. He also was in charge of alerting firefighters to potential hazards. Bethea spent 40 years as firefighter.
"It just comes full circle," his sister said of Obama's appearance at the event. "My brother supported the president and all his endeavors. This is a moment we continue to celebrate his life. This is a culminating moment."