UPDATED 12/28/10 9:49 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Hundreds of firefighters gathered Tuesday to say their final farewells to the first of two Chicago firefighters killed last week, in the department’s deadliest incident in more than a dozen years.
Funeral services were held for firefighter Edward Stringer, 47, at St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel, 7740 S. Western Ave.
People were being seated in the pews at the church at 10:05 a.m. An opening prayer and hymn began soon afterward, followed by a homily.
“Ed Stringer did it God’s way; a true warrior,” the priest delivering the homily said.
Today, Stringer’s friends and fellow firefighters said he never wanted to be thought of as a hero — but he was.
“He would never boast about it but there wasn’t anything Ed Stringer wouldn’t do for you,” said Father Thomas Mulcrone, chaplain of the fire department.
“One of the 2,000 condolences that were sent to Local 2 particularly caught my eye,” added Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 President Thomas Ryan in a eulogy. “The message read, ‘Heaven must have a heck of a fire department.’ Truer words were never spoken.”
Mayor Richard M. Daley and Fire Commissioner Bob Hoff also spoke.
“He willingly put himself in danger in order to protect the lives of Chicago residents,” said Mayor Daley. “Without him, and his brothers and sisters in the fire department, our city could not function. His death in service to all Chicagoans was a selfless act, and a tragedy and loss to the entire city. He was brave; a good man who was taken from us too soon.”
“Our chosen profession is inherently dangerous. This is something we all know too well, and why we can never forget – whether it was September 11 or December 22 – that any given day, anything can happen, and it is the responsibility of those who are left behind to carry on,” Hoff said. “That is us.”
“Ed was all fireman and he loved being just that. It means crawling down darkened hallways with fire racing across the ceiling above you. It means kneeling in an alley over the near lifeless body of a complete stranger, and giving your all to save him or her,” said Father Mulcrone. “Such is the firehouse, such is the world of firefighters and paramedics. And what a wonderful world it is, especially because Ed Stringer was a part of it.”
LISTEN: Newsradio 780′s Bernie Tafoya Reports
Before the funeral began, a fire tower ladder formed an arch over Western Avenue near the church. Stringer’s helmet and uniform were mounted on the front of his fire truck, and his name was emblazoned in gold lettering on the truck.
His casket lay under a Chicago city flag. The fellow firefighters who were present at his side when he passed away were also there to pay their last respects.
Stringer and fellow firefighter Corey Ankum, 34, were killed on Wednesday of last week, when a roof and wall collapsed on them during a fire at the vacant Banner Laundromat and Dry Cleaners, 1744 E. 75th St. The fire was largely out, but firefighters were searching the building for homeless people.
Beside the grieving family of Stringer, coming to attention outside St. Rita’s, was a brotherhood from the department admittedly shaken by recent deaths.
“I’ve only been on the job five years and this is gonna be the fourth funeral I’ve been to. You don’t get used to it,” said Firefighter Dujuan Nickson.
“It’s very sad to be here today. It’s something that we think about every day when we leave for work,” said Firefighter Russ Rachubinski.
The impact of Stringer’s death called firefighters here from Canada, Michigan and Missouri; strangers drawn together by a call to serve.
“It’s a brotherhood. It doesn’t matter where you come from. We’re all brothers,” said Firefighter Jeremy Soulliere, of Windsor, Ontario.
“We’re just a big family, and when we lose one of our own it gets us all,” said Firefighter Steven Kusmanovic, of Bloomfield Township, Mich.
“The brotherhood has no boundaries, but it crosses many borders, and we’re only too happy to be here to lend our support to the brothers and sisters of Chicago,” said Montreal firefighter Fred Frizet.
“There’s no question about distance,” added Montreal firefighter Steve Garnett. “It’s a question of respect; paying respect to one of our own. It could have been one of my friends. It could have been me. So you’ve got to come. You just have no choice. You have to come.”
Because of the big snow back east, eight firefighters from Boston, an honor guard for the fallen firefighters, could not fly to Chicago. So they piled into cars and drove here.
“It was two days and we made it here, to support our brothers from Chicago. They’re like family,” said Boston firefighter Lt. Steve Mitchell.
A Buffalo, New York firefighter and his colleagues also had to drive through bad weather.
“I made acquaintances down in Colorado in September, with guys from Chicago. And we’re a brotherhood,” said Buffalo firefighter Mark Jurczyk. “And everybody supports everybody else. And we just said we have to go.”
Friends told the story of how Edward Stringer, on a well-deserved vacation, turned his car around and drove six hours home when he learned an Afghan vet needed help moving back to Chicago; a man giving of himself on and off the job.
After the service, Stringer’s casket was placed on a fire engine for a slow trip to the cemetery.
Out of the church parking lot, his fellow firefighters waited in the cold, lined up for more than a block to salute Stringer’s body as the truck drove by.
Scores of fire department vehicles joined in the procession.
Stringer was buried at Beverly Cemetery in Blue Island.
The ceremonies will continue later this week as Stringer’s fallen colleague, Corey Ankum, is laid to rest. Tributes for Ankum begin on Wednesday. Visitation will be from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Apostolic Church of God, at 6320 S. Dorchester Ave. His funeral is 10 a.m. Thursday at the church.
CBS 2′s Mike Puccinelli, Vince Gerasole and Mike Parker contributed to this report.