Hero's welcome to wounded comrade

NY Daily News - December 09, 2004

by ALISON GENDAR

Daniel Swift thought grief would be the hardest part of attending his friend's funeral, but the hero's welcome he got at every turn yesterday was what really unnerved him.

"It was overwhelming," Swift said after the three-hour-plus farewell for fellow Firefighter and Army National Guardsman Christian Engeldrum.

Swift's homecoming began when he hobbled to the somber formation outside St. Benedict's Church, taking his place with Mayor Bloomberg, Gov. Pataki, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, Sen. Hillary Clinton and other officials.

In his firefighter's uniform and white gloves, wearing an eye patch on his youthful face and leaning on a crutch, the 24-year-old soldier made a heartrending portrait of courage.

The crowd cheered and broke into wild applause. A member of the funeral procession called out, "God bless you, Danny."

Swift's face was a mask of physical and emotional pain. He came nearly 6,000 miles to get to the funeral, with shrapnel wounds in his right eye and both legs.

He got up the steps to the church door and hugged the mother and sisters of Wilfredo Urbina, his friend and fellow soldier, who also died in the Humvee blast.

The embrace with Jeannette Urbina, the mother, lasted 10 seconds, and she caressed his face and patted his shoulder.

The attention continued during the Mass, when Msgr. Edmund Whalen thanked Swift for "being with us today and all that you have done."

Hundreds of mourners in the church gave him a standing ovation, and the military service members hooted and cheered.

Swift turned beet-red.

"It was horrible," he said later. "I mean, it was nice, but it was horrible because I didn't do anything."

As Engeldrum's coffin was borne from the Bronx church, Swift joined other firefighters in salute. He put his right hand over his bandaged eye and held onto the crutch with his left hand.

He moved his left hand against his heart and his shoulders hunched in the chill, but there was never any doubt he would stand tall until it was over.