Friday, December 10, 2004

"Drum" comes back to New York

December 10, 2004 -- DANNY SWIFT, supported by a steel crutch and wearing an eye patch, stood over the casket of his fallen comrade, silently sending the world a message: America will be here forever. As long as it can produce men like Chris Engeldrum and Danny Swift. We were all there yesterday, 10,000 of us, on a chilly Bronx day to give up our love — and try to understand how sometimes ordinary human beings can be so extraordinary. Men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line as firefighters, cops and soldiers — heroes who take incredible risks for what they know is right. Americans with guts who are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for their city, for their country, for their comrades. Engeldrum, killed in a terrorist ambush outside Baghdad, was just such a hero. So is Danny, his comrade in both the FDNY and the National Guard, injured in the same attack, who traveled many thousands of miles to get to the funeral. Firefighter Nick Turnberry, who was helping Danny walk, clearly understood what was happening. "This whole tribute," he said, "sent a message to the world." The whole world should have been watching. It could have learned a lot about comradeship, loyalty and selflessness. In simple terms, Christian Engeldrum, a cop, firefighter, and a warrior was the Finest, the Bravest and the greatest — all packaged into one amazing human. "That he was," said Joe Brady, regimental pipe band major to Christian's beloved and storied outfit, the Fighting 69th. "I said goodbye to him in June at Camp Smith in Peekskill and piped him on the plane before he left for Iraq," Brady recalled. "We were piping 'Garry Owen,' the signature march of the 69th." He recalled looking out at hundreds of troops, including Engeldrum. "Of course I knew Christian well," he said. "And suddenly I realized that some of those kids weren't coming back. I had a tough time finishing my piece. "Every American should have seen that." Tom Mahoney, fellow firefighter and friend, said simply, "The word impossible simply was not in Christian's vocabulary." FDNY colleague John Murray was asked what makes a person become a cop, a firefighter and give his life for his country in combat. "Just one word," he answered. "Chris." Tom McGrath, a retired battalion chief with 40 years on the job, had a prediction: "There is no doubt someone is going to make a movie about this young man," he said. "I just hope Hollywood does it right." So do I. Joe Murphy, of the Knights of Columbus, had watched Chris growing up. "If you want to know the secret of young Chris, it was a case of love of family, love of neighborhood, love of New York and love of country — which he was so prepared to die for," Murphy said. "There's a lot of Americans like that out there, you know. Look at Danny Swift, look at Christian. "That's America." The funeral was a sea of uniforms — NYPD, FDNY, military. I was talking to Guang Yao of the Fighting 69th, who came here from Shanghai when he was 5. "Chris did everything," Yao said. "He did everything for our country." Like many immigrants, the words "our country" have special meaning for Yao. Oh, I could write forever. Of those who smiled at Chris' memory. Of those who were choked up with sadness. Of everyone who was there — all of them breathing deeply with pride. Somehow, having known Chris many years ago, I suddenly felt insignificant among that great crew. And then I saw his son, Sean, who was carrying his father's helmet, No. 11745 — and I found it hard to hold back the tears. Danny Swift limped on his crutch as a pipe band struck up "Going Home." All of us who were there know where Chris' home is now. It's in all our hearts.

No comments: