A son's goodbye

NY Daily News - December 10, 2004

by PATRICE O'SHAUGHNESSY

Sean Engeldrum took his place at his widowed mother's side, the man of the family now that his dad is gone, never again to play with him or tease him or show him that even the toughest man cries sometimes.

The 18-year-old shed his share of tears yesterday alongside thousands of mourners who gathered under a bleak sky amid the colorful, sad rituals of the FDNY and the U.S. Army to say farewell to Firefighter Christian Engeldrum, the city's citizen soldier killed in action in Iraq.

"My dad is the greatest man I will ever know," Sean said in the Bronx church. "I only hope to be half the man he was. He was brave and courageous all the time, but able to cry over a sick dog."

As Engeldrum's flag-draped coffin arrived on his Ladder Co. 61 truck, accompanied by 63 FDNY bagpipers and drummers in bright red coats and dark plaid kilts, his pregnant widow, Sharon, was pale and drawn, her shoulders slumped against the bitter wind blowing outside St. Benedict's Church in Throgs Neck.

She was flanked by Sean and his 16-year-old brother, Royce. The coffin was handed to seven National Guard pallbearers who slowly carried it up the steps.

A few feet away, Firefighter Daniel Swift, who served with Engeldrum in the Manhattan-based "Fighting 69th" National Guard unit and tried to save him, stood trembling in dress FDNY blues, leaning on his crutch, a red spot of blood staining the bandage on his wounded right eye.

Engeldrum, 39, who grew up in the east Bronx neighborhood, was killed Nov. 29 outside Baghdad when an improvised bomb planted in the road blew up the Humvee carrying him, Swift and three other members of the 69th Regiment.

Inside the packed church, the most touching moment came when Sean Engeldrum spoke.

"My earliest memories are playing Matchbox cars with my dad. He was always there to play, and he was always there when I needed help," Sean said.

"He kidded me that he would throw me out when I turned 18, but I said, 'I'm sorry, I'm too happy here.'"

Msgr. Edmund Whalen told the mourners of Engeldrum's life of service, as a kid pumping gas, as a member of the volunteer ambulance corps, a city cop, a firefighter and a soldier.

"In his own way, he took care of ... his brothers and sisters in Throgs Neck, in the city, and throughout the world," Whalen said, adding that Engeldrum lived up to his given name. "He bore the name to far-flung areas of the world, safeguarding democracy."

Whalen pointed to Engeldrum's fire helmet on a table next to his coffin as a symbol of how he fought violence as a firefighter and a soldier.

Mayor Bloomberg noted that some 1,000 civil servants are serving in the armed services.

"There was no danger Christian was not willing to risk. ... He was, as his wife said, the ultimate patriot," Bloomberg said. "He represented the best of who we could be."

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said Engeldrum, who helped raise the first ragged flag at Ground Zero after the terror attacks, "gave more than most men who live twice as long."

Firefighter Michael Schiraldi of Ladder 61 said Engeldrum was "a child in a man's body" who told Army stories over and over, but no one minded. Schiraldi spoke of losing his great friend "literally in a flash, in a heartbeat," before he broke into sobs.

The family of Wilfredo Urbina, who also died in the blast, attended the funeral, as did the family of Felix Vargas, a Bronx man wounded in the attack.

The other man on the Humvee, Richard Cornier, is in grave condition with head wounds. Yet another member of the 69th, Henry Irizarry, was killed Dec.3.

The sudden, heavy toll on the storied, Manhattan-based 69th was evident on the faces of the Guardsmen and women who filled a section of the church.

Engeldrum, who was a staff sergeant, is to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery today.

After the Mass, his coffin was borne to the fire truck caisson by the military pallbearers.

The Fire Department pipers played "Going Home," the traditional firefighter funeral song, and a soldier blew taps. As the fire truck rolled slowly away, the pipers broke into the "Garry Owen," the proud, spirited Irish theme of the Fighting 69th.