They came by the thousands, firefighters from across North America, to pay tribute to four of their Seattle colleagues killed in a suspicious warehouse fire last week.
They arrived by bus, plane and car - all in dress uniform, many sporting black armbands. On Wednesday, in a solemn display of brotherhood, they filled the Seattle Center Arena for a memorial service for their comrades.
They stood in rapt attention as speakers remembered the victims as public servants who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“Each of these four brave men - in their professional and their personal lives - made lasting impressions on the people they touched,” Alfred K. Whitehead, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told the audience. “They were fathers, sons, brothers, husbands and fiances. They were mentors, instructors, coaches and sportsmen. And they were professional firefighters who died in the line of duty.”
Whitehead also read a message of condolence from President Clinton.
“These brave men and their fellow firefighters across the nation exemplify the highest standard of community service, confronting danger to save lives and protect property,” Clinton’s statement said. “The fire that claimed the lives of these four heroes serves as a solemn reminder of the risks that all firefighters confront on a regular basis.”
Killed in last Thursday night’s fire were Lt. Walter D. Kilgore, 45; Lt. Gregory M. Shoemaker, 43; Randall R. Terlicker, 35; and James T. Brown, 25.
They died fighting a five-alarm fire that destroyed a warehouse near the International District that housed Mary Pang Food Products Inc. as well as a bakery and rehearsal space for a rock band.
Investigators have described the fire as suspicious and said threats had been made against the business. Structural engineers, electricians, chemists, explosive experts and a dog trained to sniff out accelerants have been on the scene of the burned-out warehouse.
Many investigators, including federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, took a break from poking through the rubble to attend Wednesday’s 90-minute memorial service.
After the service, thousands of firefighters, police and other uniformed personnel marched in procession roughly 15 blocks to a downtown hotel, where a private reception was held. More than 100 firefighting trucks, aid cars and other vehicles, including limousines carrying families of the victims, joined in the convoy. Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks to watch.
At the service, at least 6,000 people - most of them firefighters - filled every seat in the Seattle Center Arena, where hockey games and concerts are held. An overflow crowd of a few thousand more were ushered into the nearby Opera House and Exhibition Hall, where they watched the service on live television. Others listened on speakers posted outside on sidewalks.
Police and firefighters from across the United States and Canada, came to Seattle for the service, said Monica Rausch of Seattle Fire Fighters Union Local 27. Five firefighters came from Australia, she said.
Among the mourners was a contingent of more than 1,000 from the Vancouver, British Columbia, area and about 100 Spokane city and county firefighters.
“We’re all here to pay our respect for our fallen brothers. We’ve all been there. We all understand that it can happen,” said Paul Bruce of the Victoria, British Columbia, Fire Department.
“They’ve given the ultimate sacrifice and we’re here. It’s a little price for us to pay to come in here in respect for what they’ve given.”
Flowers - including a floral lei sent by firefighters in Hawaii - decked the arena stage. A miniature fire ladder hung overhead and four Seattle Fire Department helmets and pairs of boots lay on stage.
Families of the victims, seated in the front rows, were presented with folded U.S. flags and gold commemorative medals.
Seattle Fire Chief Claude Harris, who personally knew three of the four victims, said the tragedy “weighs heavy on my heart.
“Family members and friends, please remember that with their loss you are still a part of our family. You are still a part of our family, and you will always be,” he said.
“This is an extended family - men and women bound together by life and death, people who live together, laugh together, labor together and die together,” Archbishop Thomas Murphy said.