Stoffa escorts families of fallen firefighters

By on September 13, 2012

Photo: The National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md. Courtesy Photo

by Lynn Meredith
ELBURN—For the fourth year in a row, retired Elburn and Countryside Firefighter Lt. Mike Stoffa will escort the family of a fallen firefighter at the National Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial weekend.

The National Fallen Fire Fighters Foundation (NFFFF) in Emmitsburg, Md., every October sponsors a national tribute to all the firefighters who died during the previous year. Thousands attend the memorial weekend to honor the men and women who died in the line of duty.

About 100 firefighters die each year, with Illinois leading the nation for the most deaths in 2011. Stoffa was selected as an escort for the first time in 2009, after applying for eight years prior.

As one of 84 escorts chosen from across the country, he said it is quite a privilege.

“This is such an honor to be a servant for a family that has lost a loved one at the scene of an emergency or engaged in other fire department activity. This includes members of our military serving our country and engaged in fire suppression activities,” Stoffa said. “It is a weekend that cannot be repeated, a one-time honor to those who gave all for the cause, much like any other first responders here in the United States and abroad.”

Not every family that has lost a loved one attends the first year. Some can take up to five years to face the tribute.

“They’ve been through funerals, fundraisers—a lot of the grieving process. We gently open up the hearts of the people,” Stoffa said. “Sometimes the chief accompanies the family or their closest comrade, or sometimes 10 members of the department will come. They are often hard hit by the loss.

The escorts go through training and rehearsals to prepare to meet the families and provide for their every need throughout the weekend.

“We have multiple meetings, make logistical plans just like a fire scene. Everyone has a
job. It’s extremely organized and very military-minded,” he said. “Everything is rehearsed, rehearsed and rehearsed. It takes a whole year of planning.”

The escorts stand in front of the NFFFF building with a sign for the family they are assigned to escort. They then begin a round of activities. The children make lithographs and luminaries with pictures of their loved one. They all sign a huge banner. Professionally trained clowns who understand the grief process work with the children.

In the Memorial Chapel, the families can place a rose on the altar, light candles and sit for hours if they choose. Counselors are available to assist.

“The benefit of the place is the serenity. It is across the street from Camp David. You can see the sun rise above the hillsides and see the streams and rivers,” Stoffa said. “At night a candlelight vigil is held with musical presentations. The moon comes up over the top of the jumbotrons. The families are back in their hotels by 9 p.m. It’s been a long day.”

On Sunday, the memorial service begins with a “Sea of Blue.” Hundreds of honor guards
and about 400 bagpipers line a long walkway. The family is escorted through the line and is then presented with the flag, a rose and a medallion that is specially designed each year and personalized for the family.

Stoffa has come to expect the unexpected when it comes to his escort families. One year,
a widow from Tennessee finally found time to come to the event, and she died in route. In that
case or if the family cannot attend, a representative will receive the medallion.

Stoffa makes a few stops along the way as he drives to Maryland. He makes a point to stop in Pennsylvania at the Flight 91 site, where this year the big memorial will reach completion.
Stoffa also goes to Gettysburg and is awed by the Civil War displays.

“It’s an unbelievable honor, very emotionally taxing. You do it for the purpose,” he said.