COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) – Gordon Butler Jr. has prayed a lot in the past 20 years.
In the late 1980s, he prayed his sister, Pamela Butler, would take a desk job. She became a Colorado Springs firefighter.
“I wasn’t thrilled with the idea because I wanted her to be safe,” Gordon Butler Jr. said.
On Saturday, he bowed his head once more – this time as a firefighter presented the family a flag honoring Butler’s cancer-shortened life.
With bagpipes, drums and solemn prayers, hundreds of people packed Memorial Park for the annual Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial Service. Butler and 86 other fallen firefighters had their names added to the International Association of Fire Fighter’s Wall of Honor this year.
“This is how we cope. This is how we mourn,” said Harold Schaitberger, union president, during the service. “We know how to do this all too well, because we do this all too often.”
A procession of motorcycles and fire trucks rumbled from Briargate to the park before the service.
As always, the names of each firefighter were read – marked by the sound of a bell acknowledging the end of their shift – as the crowd stayed silent .
But 10 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the service carried a slightly different feel, Schaitberger said.
Several families from New York decorated the black granite wall with roses and pictures of firefighters lost in the 9/11 attacks.
Tears welling in her eyes, Patricia Hess looked on in silence.
Her husband, Lt. Robert Hess, spent the first two days after 9/11 at Ground Zero, combing through the wreckage for his fellow New York City firefighters. The ash in the air stayed in his lungs long after he left the pile.
Robert Hess’ name was added to the wall this year. He died of a tumor in his chest.
“It just reminds you that you never really heal completely,” Patricia Hess said.
One of Maureen Santora’s four grandchildren adjusted a flag while she taped a picture of her son, Christopher Santora, to the wall.
Maureen Santora has traveled to Colorado Springs before to honor her son, who died on 9/11 when the towers fell. She brought her grandchildren for the 10th anniversary.
“These are the people that really stand up when it matters,” Maureen Santora said of the crowd of blue-jacketed firefighters. “It just wipes you away. I wanted them to see this.”
One-by-one, firefighters from across the United States and Canada carried blue union flags to each fallen firefighter’s family, capping each brief meeting with a salute.
“It is our duty to reflect on each loss, one at a time,” Schaitberger said.
While his father accepted the flag Saturday, Gordon Butler Jr. turned to his family and kept on praying for his Colorado Springs Fire Department sister Pamela.
When Pamela Butler first left the Army for the fire department, he worried about the flames she would encounter. His worst fears nearly came true when she fell through a kitchen floor during her first year on the job.
“They all have stories, near misses,” Gordon Butler Jr. said.
Her death in August 2010, though, caught him off guard. A hidden danger – the fumes she inhaled over the course of her career – are believed to have caused the cancer that killed her.
He still grieves. But the camaraderie offered by her fellow firefighters has helped ease the pain.
It’s also left him with a few more people to pray for.
“I had a lot of cousins back in New Jersey, but none in Colorado Springs,” Gordon Butler Jr. said. “Now I do.”
In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s memorial service, Butler has been remembered as a “pioneer” in the Colorado Springs Fire Department.
Butler was the first black female to become a lieutenant and a captain in the department, said Sunny Smaldino, Colorado Springs fire spokeswoman.
She also ran the department’s training division and its “After the Fire” program, which offered assistance to fire victims.
Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com