On a cold and rainy and wintry Sunday in New York, I went to a memorial service for a fireman in Manhattan. (Schedules of funerals have begun appearing in the DAILY NEWS, with urgent appeals for people to attend. There will be over 300 of them. ) Today’s memorial service is the only one I have seen scheduled for Manhattan. The rest have been in New Jersey or Long Island. I intend to go to at least one more this week.
The service was held in Central Synagogue. This house of worship is huge, with gorgeous mosaics. Sadly, it burned down three years ago and was rebuilt, and formally reopened on September 9th. Some of the firemen who died on Sept. 11, were those who helped save the structure of Central Synagogue three years ago.
Outside the synagogue was a huge fire dept. bucket-crane holding a large American flag. The synagogue quickly filled up, but hundreds and hundreds of empty seats were kept for firemen and family. A procession began outside with bagpipers playing AMAZING GRACE. Then, carrying American and New York State flags, the lead fireman began marching in. Between them was a fireman carrying David Weiss’s helmet, saying RESCUE COMPANY # 1 on it. Following them came firemen from Weiss’s unit, then hundreds and hundreds of other fireman from New York City, and Long Island and Virginia, all wearing dress uniforms, with white gloves and shiny black shoes. As each man reached the front of the synagogue, he touched the helmet of his fallen comrade.
David Weiss was eulogized by his best friend, a man named Sven, and others, who told stories about his outrageously brave behavior: once he was off-duty, driving his car on the elevated West Side Highway. He saw a car go off the edge into the river. He stopped his car, shimmied down the ironwork, dove in, and rescued the man. He was an ironworker before he was a fireman, and his arms were covered with tattoos. Each of the fireman who spoke ended his talk with “I love you.” Then as each completed their talk, he hugged the fire captain, the mayor, and anyone else on the stage. Firemen hug just like us, except that they also give each other nice, hard pounds on the back. They all prepared their talks; everything was written down. Between speakers, we sang hymns, including one written by a contempoary woman writer, Debbie Friedman.
Mayor Guiliani spoke next to last. He assured David Weiss’s children (girl and boy teenagers) that they would always have many friends among the firemen. He urged the firemen to stand up so that the children would see who would be there for them. He said this is not just for today–this is for their graduations and other events, and that the children might well get sick of them hanging around. He told the children to watch as the entire audience gave their fathe, who was a hero, a standing ovation. He also assured the children that the best of their father lives inside them and can never be totally lost.
I am a firm, sincere Democrat, but the mayor was even more impressive in person than he’s been on tv. He used no notes and was eloquent and sincere in every word he uttered. At the end of the ceremony, David Weiss’s helmet was given to his son and the flag to his daughter. Then everyone sang GOD BLESS AMERICA, led by the Fire Department Chief.
Then all the firemen and dignitaries marched back out the door of the synagogue. Waiting there were the bagpipers, who played AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL. Hundreds of firemen, along with the mayor and fire chief, stood in formation as the family came out. They stood there in the rain, as the family passed before them, shaking their hands….
This description gives such an inadequate sense of the depth of the feelings at the memorial service. I don’t know how it has escaped me all these years that these men willingly risk their lives every single time they go out to a fire. I have taken them for granted, and never understood this society of men (and women) who live by a profound code of honor. How many other people, I wonder, can say the same?