by ALISON GENDAR in Killeen, Tex.,
The body of firefighter Christian Engeldrum was returned home from Iraq yesterday, as the injured buddy who tried to save him vowed to come back to New York for his funeral.
A week after he died in the Iraqi desert, Engeldrum's body was brought home to his Bronx neighborhood, where a wake will be held today for the first FDNY hero to die in Iraq.
"There is a comfort to knowing he's back," said funeral director James McQuade, who grew up with Engeldrum in the Throgs Neck neighborhood.
Nine firefighters from Engeldrum's Ladder 61 in Co-op City and two FDNY counselors made the grim journey to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to escort his body home.
With the raw weather mirroring the somber mood, a military honor guard carried the flag-draped gray coffin into the Schuyler Hill Funeral Home, just a few blocks from Engeldrum's childhood home.
"It's an honor for us just to be here," said Army National Guard Sgt. Eloy Ortiz.
Dozens of family members, friends and Engeldrum's FDNY brothers arrived to pay their respects in a private viewing. His pregnant wife, Sharon, will greet mourners at wakes today and tomorrow before a funeral on Thursday.
"It's like losing a friend," said McQuade. "This is a tight community here. Everybody knew each other. Everyone grew up together."
Halfway across the nation, wounded FDNY firefighter Daniel Swift headed to Fort Hood, Tex., where he planned to stop briefly before coming home for Engeldrum's funeral.
Swift, a reservist who works at East Harlem's Ladder 43 firehouse, tried to rescue Engeldrum and gunner Wilfredo Urbina after their Humvee was torn apart by a roadside bomb outside Fallujah.
He couldn't save them, but he wants to show his grief at the final sendoff for Engeldrum, 39.
"Mom, it's really important for me to go," Swift, 24, told his mother, Kathleen Daly, as he rested at an Illinois military base.
The Army medic has shrapnel in his legs and a serious eye injury, and is exhausted after flying across three continents from the battlefield in Iraq.
But his biggest concern is winning approval from Army brass to fly back to New York for the funeral after a one-day checkup at Fort Hood.
With help from New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, the military relented and approved the hero's poignant request.
"I have to make it," Swift said. "There is no other way."