The names of 250 men and women were added Saturday to the growing rolls inscribed on the national Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial in Colorado Springs.
The number of union firefighters’ names being added to the black stone walls at the northwest corner of Memorial Park has been steadily increasing in recent years.
The reason is twofold:
First, hundreds of firefighters and other first responders have died in the 18 years since the terrorist attacks that caused the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, exposing them to toxic dust and other hazards.
Secondly, the International Association of FireFighters adopted new criteria for determining line-of-duty deaths recognizing cancers and other occupational illnesses from smoke and toxic materials, said IAFF spokesman Doug Stern.
The names added at this year’s ceremony, which annually attracts thousands of firefighters, paramedics and their grieving families, join those of more than 8,100 IAFF firefighters who died in fires or from chronic illnesses related to their work since 1918.
As in years past, a procession of hundreds of motorcyclists arrived at the park Saturday to honor the fallen firefighters, followed by firetrucks from departments around Colorado.
Thousands of people from across the country gathered around 1,100 bagpipers and drummers as the ceremony began — the beat of the drums seemed to reverberate off Pikes Peak.
Called to attention, every black, blue and white uniform in the crowd stiffened and slowly brought their white-gloved hands up for a salute.
The names of this year’s fallen IAFF members were read aloud, punctuated by the toll of the bell as a family member rose from the crowd to accept an honorary association flag. Firefighters wearing badges from across the country — Las Vegas, New York, San Antonio — carried the honorary flags past the crowd.
Of the 250 names added, 95 died in the line of duty from occupational illnesses between 1918 and 2017. The other 155 died in 2018, mostly from occupational illnesses. Seven died from colon cancer, 14 from lung cancer, 13 from brain cancer and dozens more from various types of cancers.
Cancer has become an increasing concern. In 2018, the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act was signed into law, requiring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a voluntary registry of firefighters with information that could be linked to existing data in state cancer registries.
“Within the fire service, not using (breathing apparatus) and wearing soiled (protective clothing) were long considered badges of firefighter toughness and bravery,” reads a flyer from the National Fire Protection Association. “For many firefighters, those perceptions have been costly, and in some cases deadly.”
At Saturday’s memorial stood Greeley resident Amy Sharrah, who lost her firefighter husband to pancreatic cancer. For two arduous months, William Sharrah battled the disease but died on Valentine’s Day in 2009. He was a firefighter for the Greeley Fire Department for more than 34 years, his widow said.
“He was funny,” Amy remembered. “He’d do anything for you. He helped everybody out. I think he volunteered at every possible committee there was in town.”
Though she lost her husband, she never lost her family, Amy said. As Colorado Springs City Councilman Bill Murray reiterated at the podium that morning, “You can never leave the fire department.”
“All of the Greeley fire folks that are here that worked with him, didn’t work with him, they’ve all come out,” Amy said. “It’s very comforting.”
Since her first time attending in 2010, Amy noticed that the event had grown significantly. To see the support of thousands was bittersweet, knowing that the number of attendees would continue to grow as long as the names etched into the memorial walls did, too.
“We must realize that those who chose this profession do so for the love of what this job means: service,” said Dave Noblitt, IAFF Local 5 president. “And with that, sacrifice.”