By Matias J. Ocner
Read in SHFWire
WASHINGTON — Zachary Jack VanderGriend never thought of himself as a hero, but in 2008 the 25-year-old wildland firefighter boarded an AirTanker that was to drop water on a fire burning in Calaveras County, Calif.
Shortly after the plane took off in Reno, Nev., the airplane’s left jet caught fire. The flames quickly engulfed the plane, which crashed. VanderGriend, the crew chief, was killed, as were the pilot and copilot.
Fast-forward to Wednesday, when VanderGriend’s sister, Andriana, led the pledge of allegiance during the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s second annual congressional flag presentation ceremony in Upper Senate Park.
During the ceremony, which was the first of a series honoring fallen firefighters this week, members of the Congressional Fire Service Caucus presented the foundation with 87 U.S. flags that were flown over the Capitol. Each flag represents a firefighter killed on duty – 84 in 2014 and three who died earlier – and will go to his or her family.
“I never really saw my brother as that kind of a hero,” VanderGriend said, “but to see all of these people out here for him, and for the other men and women who have given their lives for our country is really humbling.”
For VanderGriend, 24, who lives in Washington is a law student at Catholic University of America, the event was a way to continue her brother’s work.
“It’s to honor him and to continue to give back to something that he felt so strongly about,” VanderGriend said. “They’ve done so much for me, for my family, for my brother.”
Holding the flags firmly, volunteer firefighters from around the country marched in two straight lines until they reached a firetruck-themed platform.
There they handed the flags to another firefighter who stowed them in a brown wooden cabinet. Once filled, the container was lifted onto a firetruck, which ended the ceremony.
The truck was driven to Emmitsburg, Md., where the flags will be given to family members Sunday during the 34th National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service. President Barack Obama is expected to attend.
Nearby was Vivian Morgan Boyd, of Capitol Heights, Md., who works for the Maryland suburban water authority. She kept her head down and prayed during part of the service.
“It’s a moving experience. It gives you a moment to reflect on your friends and families and those that you know that are in fire services,” said Boyd, a representative for the Ladies Auxiliary to the Maryland State Firemen’s Association.
“They’ll be remembered and recognized for running in when everyone else ran out,” Boyd said.
More than 100 firefighters gathered at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday for a wreath-laying ceremony.
The men and women in uniform stood silently as rain poured on them and a member of the 3rd Infantry Regiment laid a wreath to honor the fallen.
Deputy Fire Chief James McLoughlin, 52, from Hartford, Conn., has been involved with the national memorial since 2002.
“To interact with the families of those who have lost a firefighter and to be able to honor and pay tribute to their memory is just an incredible experience,” McLoughlin said. “The thing that makes this real for each and everyone of us is that the line-of-duty deaths that occur each year, could occur to anyone of us. So it’s very moving, but also eye opening.”
According to the report, Firefighter Fatalities in the United States 2014 report by the National Fire Protection Association, there have been an average of 31 fire ground deaths over the past 10 years since 2005. It reported 64 deaths last year. Different groups use different criteria to determine who died on duty.
For now, McLoughlin hopes the memorial will bring ease to those families of fallen firefighters.
“The fire service still surrounds them and loves them. They’re not alone,” McLoughlin said.
Reach reporter Matias J. Ocner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-1492. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.