About 800 solemn-faced people gathered Saturday in breezy, rain-threatened Capitol Park to honor 29 fallen firefighters at the 14th annual California Firefighters Memorial Ceremony. Most of the attendees were families and friends of the 29, but among them were hundreds of firefighters from around the state, looking formal in braided dress uniforms and brimmed hats.
Eighteen of the 29 firefighters died in the last year and a half, the other 11 in recent years. They “died in the line of duty, whether from traumatic injury or job-related illness,” said Carroll Wills of the California Fire Foundation. “Their families will leave here knowing their (loved ones’) lives mattered.”
The ceremony opened and closed with precision marching and emotion-arousing music. Costumed pipes-and-drums bands joined a procession of honor guards holding brightly colored flags and symbolic fire axes. Many of the groups had traveled to Sacramento from cities and towns across California.
The centerpiece of the ceremony was at the California Firefighters Memorial, where immediate family and friends were seated inside a cordoned-off area in front of a raised stage. Most attendees sat in rows of chairs outside that compound, or stood and watched. Speakers included Gov. Jerry Brown and Lou Paulson, president of California Professional Firefighters.
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The memorial, dedicated in 1995, is a tribute to the 1,300-plus California firefighters who have died since California became a state in 1850. Their names are engraved in a two-sided polished-limestone wall, and now include those of the 29. Complementing the wall are two bronze statues created by retired firefighter Jesus Romo.
One of the fallen 29 was Franck Tremaine, a captain at the Jackson Fire Department and 40-year veteran who died in January 2015. His widow, Geneva Tremaine, was at the ceremony with family members.
“This means so much to us,” she said. “My husband and the other firefighters from the (Jackson Fire Department) would come here every year and march, so it’s fitting that (my family and I) are here today. I felt proud when he had to suddenly go on a call, (such as) in the middle of Thanksgiving, when somebody needed him a little bit more than we did.”
“There aren’t many parts of our society that have the bond of solidarity and camaraderie I feel here today,” Brown told the assembly. “(You are part of) a moving stream of dedication and heroism.”
Paulson of the CPF reminded the gathering, “Your loved ones went out every day and changed lives. None of them ever considered themselves as heroes, but they lived their lives with an uncommon courage that heroes have. How fortunate we were to have them as part of our fire-service brotherhood.”
The ceremony neared conclusion with the presentation of American flags in triangular wood boxes to the 29’s survivors, each flag presented by a member of the department where the fallen firefighter had served. In each case, the presenter delivered a smart salute to the recipient.
At the end, as a brass bell was rung nine times, symbolizing the “last alarm” ritual, a flock of white doves was released. The birds flew above the trees, circled the memorial twice, then disappeared into the gray sky.