“I don’t think I can do this,” was my first thought when I was asked to go to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend as one of five volunteers to represent 3M Scott Fire & Safety. I was convinced that the event would tear my heart out, leaving me with an emotional heaviness that would take me days to recover. I was right. But it was one of the most impactful experiences of my life and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

The National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend is the official national tribute honoring U.S. firefighters who died in the line of duty. Hosted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), this annual event provides support for the families and loved ones of fallen firefighters. 3M Scott, an avid proponent of the NFFF, has supported this event for years, and sends a team of employees to assist throughout the weekend.

Three firemen raise a flag in silent tribute to those brave firefighters who served.
Located on the ceremony grounds, this memorial stands. Three firemen raise a flag in silent tribute to those brave firefighters who served.

During the weekend, a total of 103 firefighters were honored: 80 firefighters who died in 2017, 23 who passed in earlier years, but were never recognized. Wives, husbands, siblings, grandparents, children, and fellow firefighters from across the country made the trip to Emmitsburg, Maryland. I lent a helping hand and an ear to anyone who needed it, trying my best not to internalize the grief, and remain unaffected by stories that were unique, but nevertheless heartbreaking. My resolve was short lived with the very first person I met.

As I walked through crowds of people in red shirts that signified they were returning attendees and others wearing blue lanyards indicating this was their first time in attendance, I saw a five-year-old boy talking with one of the clowns roaming around, undoubtedly to add levity to the solemn atmosphere. I went up to a woman I assumed was his mother. She turned out to be the boy’s grandmother, Karen, who had lost her son Matthew when he was fatally injured while clearing brush in a California fire. She looked at me with tears and a smile as she told me Matthew’s story.

After a pause to compose myself, I made my way to the room where attendees were inscribing messages to loved ones on an 8’ x 4’ poster. Alyssa had her niece and nephew with her. Their mother couldn’t attend because she was giving birth. As Alyssa and I talked about the brother she lost, I glanced over the 7-year-old’s shoulder to read:

Dear Daddy,
I hope you are having fun in heaven. I miss you a lot.
Love, Anna

Remembering the fallen firefighters with personal messages.

I looked at Alyssa and hugged her as we both quietly wept for the children who would never get to hug their father again.

Moving on with a heavy heart, I met Claire, a volunteer. This was her 13th year in attendance, after losing her husband to a heart attack upon returning from a strenuous call.

And then there was Jessica. I helped her decorate a luminary that would be one of 103 lit at Saturday evening’s candlelight ceremony. She came up to me and asked me for help finding a word in the piles of clip art strewn across the tables. The word was fiancé. She was engaged to be married on September 29, 2018. Nearly a year ago, Kendall was responding to a call involving a car accident. As he exited his vehicle, a drunk driver hit him on the scene, killing Kendall instantly. He was 27. Two weeks ago, on what should have been her wedding day, Jessica memorialized their relationship by taking wedding photos alone. The pictures from that day epitomize the strength I saw in each and every surviving family member throughout the weekend.

Jessica honors her deceased fiance in a moving photo shoot.
Read more of Jessica’s story at: https://yhoo.it/2PwQS4q.

There were countless stories like these, as well as moving ceremonies that included:

The raising of the Fire Hero Family Flag on Friday evening with a volunteer Honor Guard standing at attention 24/7 to closely secure this sacred symbol of heroism.

Light the Night on Saturday night where approximately 150 prominent state and regional landmarks around the country were bathed in red to commemorate the weekend. In addition, each of the 103 families were given candles to hold as local talent paid homage to the fallen through song and speech.

The FEMA Campus Chapel at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend Light the Night Ceremony
The FEMA Campus Chapel at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend Light the Night Ceremony

Red Helmet Ride where current and retired firefighters, road down main street on their motorcycles in a solemn tribute.

Bells Across America on Sunday morning where the tolling of the bell could be heard simultaneously in multiple locations across the U.S.

Presentation of Flags, the final memorial service, where five-year-old Wesley and his grandmother along with 102 other families, accepted an American flag along with one red rose from a decorated fire service escort in dress blues.

And of course, there were bag pipes. Lots of bag pipes.

On the plane ride back to Charlotte, NC, that’s when it struck me. This weekend is not about memorializing death, it’s about celebrating life. How these men and women lived their lives to serve and support their families and communities. They are not heroes because they died in the line of duty. They became heroes the minute they signed up to be a firefighter.

The many poignant stories hit home for me the importance of what 3M Scott does and who we do it for. To work for a company that manufactures equipment critical to keeping these selfless heroes safe, fills me with a sense of pride and gratitude almost indescribable; like nothing I have ever experienced in my 30-year career. Realizing that what we do makes a difference—in some cases the difference between life and death—is astounding.

Witnessing the strength, passion, and perseverance of these men, women, and children as they celebrated the memories of their fallen loved ones was a privilege that I will not soon forget. I surprised myself in making it through without breaking down into a crying heap, at least not in public. Thank you, 3M Scott and NFFF, for this humbling, affective experience. And many thanks to the families, friends, and colleagues of the fallen for sharing your memories The weekend effectively reset my perspective on life, work, and love. I will remember this weekend with humility, grateful for the people I met, the stories I heard, and the tears I shed.

Michelle O’Donnell
Digital Community Engagement Leader
3M Scott Fire & Safety

Visit the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation for more information about the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend.

103 Firefighters Honored at National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend 2018
Firefighters Honored at National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend 2018