Emotional service honors those who died selflessly
By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- There were mourning bagpipes, crisply pressed uniforms and severe salutes. There was a sob-choked speech from a New York City firefighter, followed by a sad song and a wave crash of sniffles.
There was an invocation, a Scripture reading, a moment of silence. Then a video memorial, a litany of remembrance and another moment of silence. Three standing ovations. Taps. More bagpipes.
Hundreds of people walked out of "A Service of Remembrance" in Clearwater's Harborview Center with tears still streaking down their cheeks. Some carried American flags; others had flags embroidered on their sweaters or stitched onto shirts.
Ten New York City firefighters attended the service, which many said was perhaps the most moving they had ever attended. The New York firefighters stood in a line afterward, clasping hands with hundreds of people, their eyes red and noses wet, who formed a line to meet and thank them.
An hour later it was over.
The firefighters straggled a little, answering questions and taking photos with local firefighters. But then the 10 men -- each whom had lost many friends -- wanted to leave. It was as if they couldn't wait for Sept. 12 and for the sun to come out from behind Wednesday's bruise-colored clouds.
Their journey here began a year before, when five Safety Harbor firefighters headed to New York City to help with the cleanup and to attend memorial services for firefighters killed in the terrorist attacks. At one service they met a group of firefighters, most of whom had been in the second wave of rescuers.
The New York firefighters invited the Safety Harbor visitors to their firehouse for a lunch of homemade onion soup and sausage and peppers.
"They hung our jackets on the rungs of their firehouse right next to theirs," said David Pacheco, a Safety Harbor fire inspector.
Days later, the Safety Harbor crew was helping out at ground zero. Again, they ran into that firehouse crew.
Friendships began to forge. The New York group started making trips to Pinellas County for rest and peace. The Safety Harbor crew traveled to New York to march alongside their friends in the St. Patrick's Day Parade.
They got to know each other, their wives and families.
"It's so strong," Pacheco said. "What one year has done is incredible."
When Safety Harbor firefighters learned of a memorial service in Clearwater to commemorate Sept. 11, they called their friends in New York. Ten agreed to come.
Fire, police and rescue workers and the military were represented at the service, sponsored by the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association and the Emergency Service Chaplains of Pinellas County.
"We offer our prayers for anyone whose lives were touched on Sept. 11," John Denmark, chaplain for the Seminole Fire Department, told the crowd.
After a video montage and song, 10 Pinellas chaplains led the audience in a litany honoring victims and those who had helped others.
Then the 10 firefighters were summoned on stage.
Lt. Brian Grisanti, who served on Engine 160 and lost 11 men in his firehouse, came to the microphone.
"We are here today to remember our fallen brothers," he said. "We were all there that day. We did not all return."
Words became difficult.
Fellow firefighter Greg Sclafani stepped forward and put his left hand on Grisanti's right shoulder. Grisanti swallowed hard and continued his speech. Sclafani followed.
"We're only here as representatives of those heroes, because the heroes are no longer with us," he said. "God needed them upstairs for other things."
Grisanti retired in December; Sclafani, two months ago.
"It just wasn't fun anymore," Grisanti, a 20-year department veteran, said. "In every firefighter is a little kid. There's a story of a little kid telling his dad he wants to grow up and be a firefighter. And the dad tells him, well, you can't do both."
The New York firefighters were noticeably moved during the service, particularly by Last Call, a song about cell phone calls made by people who perished in the disaster.
"It put me right there," said Sclafani. "It was like I could feel my footsteps. I had a feeling of myself walking that day. It makes it seem like yesterday or only hours ago. It's very emotional."
As the crowd of well-wishers dwindled Wednesday, smiles began to return to the firefighters' faces. They will be in Pinellas County until Saturday.
As one New York firefighter said as he walked toward the exit: "It's time to smile. We've cried enough. It's time to smile."
-- Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or email@example.com.
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