The Fire Department’s memorial ceremony at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 12 was appropriately solemn. The speakers-Mayor Bloomberg, former Mayor Giuliani, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and others-were uniformly eloquent. Politicians in the crowd knew enough to remain in the background. None of them was introduced, save for the Mayor and ex-Mayor. The music was well-chosen and tasteful, the rituals comforting and mournful at the same time. The bagpipers were summoned not to play the laments they know all too well, but a rousing version of “America the Beautiful.”
This tribute had been months in the preparation, and the dignified script imagined and created in the FDNY’s Office of Public Information was executed without a flaw.
Nobody, however, had counted on the cheers: the life-affirming, death-defying, full-throated cheers of a magnificent institution that has grieved as never before, and now must heal as never before.
The cheers came from family: blood relatives, friends and partners, the brothers and sisters in arms of the fallen. They had spent the months since their loss in mourning, but now, on this day set aside for speeches and medals and music, they sensed a chance to break the bonds of propriety.
They listened for nearly half an hour as the names of their sons, daughters, parents, siblings and friends were read aloud, and they had been watching as the images of their dead loved ones appeared on a video screen. There were 356 names and faces -the roster of the fallen from Sept. 11 and from fires and accidents dating to October 2000, when the FDNY last met to remember its new heroes.
Then, as the last name was announced, when the final, soulful note of “Ashokan Farewell” faded, there was a momentary silence in the hall. And then the applause started. It was muted and restrained at first, like the applause you might hear at the funeral of some old, beloved politician or celebrity. After a minute or so, the 20,000 firefighters and family members in the Garden were on their feet, and then their hand-clapping became cheers-loud, room-rocking cheers.
And then came the whistles. You usually hear them at FDNY promotion ceremonies. They come from the back of the auditorium, from the buddies of the newly minted lieutenants and captains and battalion chiefs. They always make people smile, these great, piercing whistles.
And so they did on Oct. 12. Unexpectedly, the arena was filled with smiles, and the firefighters and the parents and the sons and the daughters and the spouses and the partners and the grandchildren cheered some more. They cheered for seven minutes, and if you closed your eyes and listened, you would have thought that this was how the Garden sounded on that June night eight years ago, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940. Or on that wondrous evening three decades ago, when a gimpy Willis Reed hit his first two jump shots in Game 7 of the N.B.A. finals of 1970.
But these cheers were louder and greater because they were for real heroes. Not for grownups playing children’s games, but for men and women who lost their lives doing work the rest of us can’t imagine. Not for millionaire athletes, but for workaday people who chose not simply a profession, but a vocation.
The cheering and the whistles were unscripted, unplanned, and completely and utterly appropriate. They were the sounds of love, of appreciation, of defiance. The Fire Department of New York has been wounded, grievously, but it is still very much alive. And it will never forget the sacrifice of Sept. 11, 2001.
Would that we all could similarly steel ourselves not only against loss but the prospect of further wounds. Would that we could all rouse ourselves to cheer and to whistle in the face of grief and mourning.
On that awful day 13 months ago, the Fire Department of New York, along with the Police Department and other first-responders, showed us that on a day filled with evil, love had not been vanquished. Hundreds died while saving thousands. The Fire Department chaplain, Mychael Judge, died that day-he was a Franciscan, an order that tries to live the prayer of its founder, Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
And so they did, and they died in the process. But they will be remembered as the eternal counterpoint to the murderous hatred that took their lives. Their friends, their loved ones, their brothers and sisters understood all of this-perhaps long before the rest of us did.
So they cheered. And so do we all.