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Fallen Heroes Day: Remembering The Baltimore-Area First Responders Who Made The Ultimate Sacrifice

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Friday marks Fallen Heroes Day in Maryland. Every year, the occasion is marked by a ceremony that honors first responders who gave their lives in the line of duty. This year, we will remember an unprecedented 15 fallen heroes, seven of whom died as a result of COVID-19.

In Baltimore City, emotions are still very raw. Over the past few months, the city lost Baltimore Police Officer Keona Holley, who was shot in her patrol car while on duty, and three firefighters--Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler and firefighter Kenny Lacayo--who died in a collapse and house fire in West Baltimore.

It was after the deaths of three Baltimore County firefighters in 1984 that Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens established an annual event to honor the sacrifices of every man and woman who died that year in public safety service. I sat with the brother of one of those firefighters and the sister of Lt. Sadler as they prepare to join the community in honoring our fallen heroes.

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Thirteen weeks have passed since the Stricker Street fire that killed three Baltimore City firefighters. Lacey Marino, herself a firefighter, told me, "Sometimes, I'll get a phone call or a text message at the right time and I feel we're all going through this together, so we're leaning on each other and supporting each other."

While Marino's sister's very public funeral was difficult, it was at the ceremony that Marino realized the firefighting force is more than just a professional connection--it's a family, too.

"There are people who flew in from France and all over the United States, you know, to honor, you know, Kenny, Paul and Kelsey," Marino told me. "It's just very, very overwhelming and beautiful at the same time."

It was that very experience, 38 years ago, that led Chief Thomas Kimbel to the force. He was 23 and on his honeymoon in Bermuda when he returned to his hotel room to find a phone message light blinking. "I will never forget walking into that room and seeing a blinking red light on the phone," Kimbel told me.

He called his family, who told him to come home because something had happened to his brother, James, a Baltimore County firefighter. James and two colleagues were killed while fighting a five-alarm fire at Schiller's furniture store in Dundalk. Tom, a mechanic who had no interest in fighting fires, said everything changed during the service honoring his brother and the two other firefighters.

"I saw thousands of people, thousands of people from fire departments from so far away I had never heard of them. And they were coming to see my brother, Walter and Henry. I couldn't comprehend what was happening. And I knew, standing at the gravesite. I remember we were all leaving and I didn't want to leave. I just wanted to stay there just a few more seconds realizing, 'Man, this is what I gotta do. I gotta pick up where he left off and I have to do it for him,'" Kimbel recalled.

Chief Kimbel and the families of the 211 fallen heroes who have died since that inaugural ceremony all attend the ceremony at Dulaney Valley each year.

Asked how he might prepare Lacey for what she will experience, the chief said, "At that point where you're sitting in the front row, this is never gonna get better. It's just not. That's the way you feel. It's just never gonna get better. But what I'm here to tell you, it doesn't get a whole lot better. It doesn't get a whole lot easier. But it does, in fact, change."

Lacey and her husband are both firefighters. She says the call the morning her sister died was just routine. There was no way to anticipate what would happen when the burning vacant home would begin collapsing, killing Kelsey and the other firefighters. But, once the call for rescue went out, she knew.

"When I received the phone call, I knew. I knew what the outcome was gong to be without... I felt it, so there wasn't anywhere else that I was gonna be other than standing on scene and watching the best of the best do everything they could, you know, to rescue them," she recalled.

I asked her if she was there when her sister's body was brought out and she acknowledged she was. "As hard as it is, there is nowhere else I would've been. I had to be as close to her as I could," she said.

Kimbel, now retired, said Sadler, Butrim and Lacayo were doing their duties that day.

"They did their job," he said. "In the service, we refer to it... they pushed through the door. That's what they did. There are those who will push through the door. We need people who will push through the door."

And it is to honor those who "push through the door" that thousands of people will gather on Friday at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, so that their sacrifices are never forgotten and their lives are remembered by a grateful community.

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