York firefighters hold 140th annual memorial service
Anyone within the vicinity of West Market Street and Carlisle Avenue about an hour before dusk Sunday evening would have heard the faint but familiar sound of bagpipes drifting over from St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church.
There, as they have 139 times before in York City's history, the brotherhood of firefighters, both professional and volunteer, paid tribute to the fallen members of its fraternity.
More than 50 past and present firefighters, family members and friends gathered at 6:45 p.m. outside St. Matthew for the 140th Annual Memorial Service for the York City Fire/Rescue Services. A prelude performed by the Kilte Band of York welcomed all who came.
"It is a longstanding tradition of the department," York City Fire Chief David Michaels said. "And so what it does (is) honors members who have passed away during the last year."
These were not men and women who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty, Michaels said, but were men and women who dedicated their lives to the fire service and to serving their community.
Each of the city's nine companies, Laurel, Vigilant, Union, Rescue, Goodwill, Royal, Eagle, Rex Hook and Ladder, and Lincoln, were represented, as were the York Professional Fire Fighters.
The Rev. Kevin Shively, a York City Fire Department chaplain, officiated over the memorial service. He began by telling the men and women of the fire service in attendance, whom he called brave and courageous, that he often asked himself how it was they perform their duties. By the end of his sermon, he had answered his own question.
"I know what it is now," he said. "You do it with God's help."
One of the event's organizers, Marlin Grove, of Vigilant Fire Company, reflected on the emotion behind the ceremony he helps orchestrate each year.
"It's a true dedication to the firefighters, both career and volunteer, that have passed on in the last year," he said. "It is to honor them."
Grove said that despite his own number of years in service, the memorial still rings personal to him.
"Some of the people that have passed on, you knew very well. You fought fires, you went into burning buildings with them," he said. "And now they are not here."
Following the ceremony — during which prayers were read and hymns were sung, and each of the departed's names were read and a ceremonial bell tolled in their honor — the Kilte Band led the procession from inside the church out into the night air.
Kilte member and retired York City firefighter Ken Sheffer said his band has been participating in the memorial service for at least eight years. Sheffer, a former trumpeter-turned-bagpiper, always had an interest in the instrument. But it was not until returning from New York City following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 during which 343 New York Fire Department firefighters lost their lives, that he took up the pipes.
"Traditionally, bagpipes were part of the fire service," he said.
The practice dates back to when larger cities such as New York and Chicago had such a huge influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants blend into the fire departments there.
"And if they lost somebody in the line of duty or if they had a death by natural causes, they generally utilized the bagpipes during the service," Sheffer said.
That tradition played itself out again and again when Sheffer and his platoon went to New York in September 2001 to honor the men and women in their fraternity who perished at Ground Zero.
"At every one of them they had the bagpipes playing," he said.
He and several members joined the Kilte Band upon their return.
Since this time last year, 16 members of the York City Fire/Rescue Service have passed on, each of whom was honored Sunday. Come next year, around dusk on another Sunday late in April, Sheffer and his band mates, his colleagues in uniform and the friends and family of York City firefighters past and present, will reconvene.
"It's basically to honor those who have fallen," Sheffer said."And that's why we do it. We do it annually, for 140 years now."
— Reach John Joyce at email@example.com.