President Barack Obama honored 87 fallen firefighters as the headline speaker for a ceremony held at Mount St. Mary’s University Sunday.
“I want to express the gratitude of the nation for your sacrifices on behalf of others,” he said to surviving family members and friends “All of you are united by an unbreakable bond of strength and sacrifice.”
Obama spoke at a memorial event as part of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend, organized by the non-profit National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) in Emmitsburg. The ceremony marked a day of remembrance for 84 firefighters who passed away in 2014 and 3 who passed away in previous years.
Fire crews from across the country were in attendance, including volunteer and forestry units. The event had been moved to Knott Arena on east campus from the National Fire Academy only 3 days prior.
At the end of his speech, Obama unveiled a plaque bearing the names of each fallen firefighter remembered on Sunday.
He then embraced the family and friends of the 87 one by one, while a short phrase about the honoree appeared on a projector screen. Many of the messages noted emergency responders’ roles as loving parents and charismatic leaders.
“Every single day across our country, men and women leave their homes and their families, they might save the lives of people they have never met,” Obama said of the nation’s emergency responders. “They are good stewards, serving their neighborhoods, their communities, our nation.”
The president specifically explored the individual stories of four of the fallen firefighters. He recalled one of them, Michael Garrett of Nutter Fort, West Virginia, as a dependable family man.
“Mikey was the guy you could always call in a pinch, no matter how busy he was,” Obama added.
The ceremony featured several other notable speakers, including House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner. Chief Dennis Compton, Chairman of the Board of the NFFF, directed the event.
“It takes courage to come to the aid of others,” Compton said. A common theme between speakers highlighted the role of firefighters as parents and family members. Compton acknowledged this in speaking to the loved ones of the deceased.
“You laughed with them. You played with them. You worked hard together,” he said.
Hoyer recalled a moment he shared with Pope Francis during the pontiff’s visit to the United States weeks before. Hoyer quoted Francis’ reaction upon visiting the 9/11 Memorial in New York: “these family members showed me the other face of this attack.”
The ceremony contained several musical segments. The NFFF honor guard, composed of bagpipe and drum instrumentalists from fire regiments across the nation, performed at the opening and closing of the event. Several vocalists also performed.
Midway through the ceremony, the president’s squadron of air vehicles could be heard landing in the university’s athletic fields outside the arena.
“Words alone can’t ease the pain of your loss,” Obama said to the gathered families, “but perhaps it helps to know that the American people stand with you in honoring your loved ones.”
The number of firefighters in the United States, including both volunteer and career officials, tallies over 1 million individuals, according to a 2012 report from the National Fire Protection Association. Congress created the NFFF in 1992 in order to “honor our fallen fire heroes and assist their families and coworkers,” per the NFFF’s web page.
Several Mount students attended the celebration as well, in addition to university president Simon Newman. It was the first time a U.S. president had made an official visit to Mount St. Mary’s since President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke the graduating class of 1958.
“I felt really moved by both the brotherhood of the surviving firefighters in the room and the president’s words” student Hannah Opdenaker said. “President Obama didn’t make the speech about him, but focused on the families.”
Obama closed with an appeal for unity with the loved ones of the “87 heroes.”
“We hold you in our hearts,” he said. “We offer our deepest condolences, our prayers, and our eternal gratitude.”