As the bagpipers warmed up and firefighters finished hoisting an American flag above a 30-foot monument honoring their own on Sunday, Sharon Grant stood in a black shawl among the crowd at Rosehill Cemetery and described the scene as overwhelming.
Her husband, William “Billy” Grant, served as a firefighter 21 years before he died in the line of duty in March. He was among 94 Chicago firefighters and paramedics, most of them retired, who died in the last year and who were remembered during the 25th annual memorial service at the North Side cemetery.
“He was kind of about pomp and circumstance,” said Sharon Grant, 40, of Chicago, whose three children, Danny, 3, Caroline, 6, and Kristin, 8, played quietly nearby.
“He would have liked this.”
About 100 people turned out for the event, sponsored by Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local No. 2, the Chicago Fire Department and the Gold Badge Society, a support group for spouses and family members of firefighters and paramedics who have died. Officials spoke from beneath the towering stone monument, built in 1864, when fire engines were drawn by horses.
Besides honoring the families, the memorial service allows firefighters to reflect on the duties and hazards of their job, Fire Commissioner Raymond Orozco said.
“We probably need to do it more for ourselves,” he said, before the service. “It’s the stuff nobody ever talks about, the dangers that firefighters face every day.”
Those attending dabbed at tears as the names of their loved ones were called. William Grant’s brother, Kevin, also a firefighter, rang a bell three times, then three more times, then another five times, symbolizing the 3-3-5 signal that traditionally was used to call firefighters back to the station.
“With the ringing of the bell, our fallen comrades are returning home for the last time,” announced Thomas Ryan, acting president for Local No. 2.
Billy Grant, 44, was en route to a fire call when his truck collided with a school bus at an intersection on March 23. Since then, the firefighters and their families have embraced his wife, who last week attended an international memorial for fallen firefighters in Colorado Springs, she said.
“It truly is a brotherhood,” Sharon Grant said. “They’re wonderful to the kids.”
She said she is not sure if her children understand, but “it’s something that maybe when they will look back on, they will appreciate.”
Others who shared Grant’s grief included Margo Grogan, 48, of Chicago, whose brother, Nicholas “Nick” Grogan, died in February of lung cancer at age 49. The disease is common among firefighters, despite their protective gear, because of the nature of their jobs, she said.
“We don’t consider what risks they have,” she said. “It would be great to have an early intervention to diagnose them.”
Her brother voiced no regrets though, she said.
“These are usually people who dream from a young age of being a firefighter,” Grogan said.
Betty Liesz, 71, of Schaumburg, a member of the Gold Badge Society, arrived to the memorial wearing a necklace designed with a miniature replica of her husband’s badge. Her husband died in the line of duty in 1986, after he fell out of a third-floor window while fighting a fire. She was accompanied by Maryann Hurter, 65, of Mt. Prospect, whose husband died in 1986 of a heart attack while at the firehouse.
The two became friends over the years by attending the annual memorials.
“You come to share your grief with the people,” Hurter said. “It’s a camaraderie you have, a support group.”
Liesz added: “You learn to laugh again.”firstname.lastname@example.org