The Memorial Is More About the Celebration of Life

By Mike Nakamichi

Held annually since 1986 (with the exceptions of 2020, the COVID year, and the cancellation of 2021), the International Association of Firefighters, with the assistance of the Colorado Springs Local 5, has hosted the Fallen Fighter Memorial in Colorado Springs. The event is a memorial for the lives of the firefighters that have passed during the year and in past years.

The Memorial site is set in a park, each time with the centerpiece a sculpture of a firefighter descending on a ladder with an infant in his arms. This sculpture was delivered in 1987. The first granite wall of the etched names was erected in 1989. In 2014, the Memorial site was redesigned and was rebuilt in the Memorial Plaza to encompass more of the serene setting with Pike’s Peak as the backdrop. Presently, there are 8,427 names that have been etched on the Wall as of 2020 with 224 to be added for 2021. Those that have been inscribed date back to 1918.

Every year since 1986, the Memorial is set for the third Saturday in September. That day is a sight to behold on the Memorial Plaza. The pomp and circumstance, the somberness, and the ceremony are memorable. The event brings together the fallen firefighters’ families, friends, dignitaries, the Honor Guards, and the Pipes and Drums from across the United States and Canada. The event is spectacular. The Memorial Saturday is an event every firefighter should witness.

For the Memorial Ceremony to be what it is, the planning and preparations set the stage for the event. The IAFF memorial staff meets months in advance to plan the proceedings. The Colorado Springs Local 5 members volunteer as event coordinators, tour guides, bus drivers, and caring for the families of the fallen. Their wives put much time into tending to the families, the staff, and administrative duties. In all, the IAFF, Local 5, and their families are indispensable in why the Memorial is what it is.

The Honor Guard and Pipes and Drums members have an essential role in the Memorial as well. Most arrive prior to Saturday due to the preparation beginning on Thursday, where a meeting with the IAFF staff is conducted. It is then that the tasks are assigned. These include the flag-raise team, name readers, and flag bearers. The presenters of the IAFF flags are predetermined because of their relationship with the fallen firefighter. The Pipes and Drums members are assigned their duties for the ceremony by the pipe major. When this is all presented Saturday morning, the event moves timely through the proceedings.

“Practice makes perfect” is the stapled phrase for all participating in the Memorial Ceremony. Friday is for rehearsal. There is a walk-through in the morning to put things in perspective, and the afternoon is for the rehearsal of the ceremony. It is all about ensuring that the performances of the buglers, raise team, readers, flag bearers, Honor Guards, and the Pipes and Drums are flawless. The ceremony celebrates the lives of those who died in the line of duty, and it has great meaning for the spouse and family members. Therefore, the execution must be precise.

The ceremony commences with the presentation of the Colors, the parade of the Honor Guards carrying the IAFF flags to be presented to the spouse and family, the Honor Guards marching in with the department or union flags to be displayed, and the ever-present Pipes and Drums playing for the procession.

Dignitaries are announced and the opening prayer is conducted by Father Thomas Mulcrone of Chicago.

The Memorial Ceremony begins with reading the names of those that have fallen. The audience falls quiet, and the emotion of melancholy is felt without words. The Honor Guard member presents the IAFF flag to the spouse and family. The grief can be seen in their eyes, but so can the realization that their loved one will never be forgotten.

The third Saturday in September is an event that will always have sad, but fond memories for the spouses and families of the heroes that have passed. Those that have fallen will always be remembered, for they will never be forgotten.

That evening, the Seattle Fire Department Honor Guard and the Pipes and Drums will have a Celebration of Life party in the parking lots between the hotels where they are staying. This celebration began in 2003 for Seattle firefighters that had passed during the year. That year, Seattle’s Honor Guard and Pipes and Drums, approximately 25 members and the families of the fallen, honored and paid homage to those who had passed. The celebration was established for the families to attend a more intimate setting where the spouse, family, and friends could say a few words in memory of their beloved firefighter that had passed. It is a time of sharing for the families and friends of the fallen. And those that are in attendance are seeing what it means to the families and friends that all are here to celebrate the life of their firefighter.

The origin of the celebration was for fallen Seattle firefighters, but as the message was passed from firefighter to firefighter about the event, the Celebration of Life became more than just Seattle. Firefighters from around the country wanted to celebrate the lives of their fallen. Hence, the Celebration of Life has grown to more than 200 attendees, with that number increasing each year.

When we started the Celebration of Life, the gala event was for our Seattle firefighters that had fallen. We had no idea such an event would be more about the inclusion of the firefighter family from around the country. It is gratifying that our Celebration of Life has such an impact to our firefighting community. For that, we, from Seattle Fire, are looking forward to continuing the event and hope that our Celebration of Life reaches out to everyone.

Mike Nakamichi

Retired Battalion Chief, Seattle Fire

Member of Seattle Firefighter Honor Guard

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