Two Proud Traditions Honor a Firefighter Killed in Iraq

NY Times - December 10, 2004


The dress blue uniforms of the Fire Department spilled down one half of the steps outside St. Benedict's Roman Catholic Church in the Bronx yesterday. The dress greens of the National Guard spilled down the other.

The mixture of these two proud traditions reflected the service of Christian Engeldrum. A father of two proud children, with another on the way, Sergeant Engeldrum, who was killed last month while serving in Iraq, was a firefighter with Ladder Company 61 in Co-op City in the Bronx and a sergeant in the New York National Guard.

At his funeral yesterday, in the Throgs Neck neighborhood, there was talk of patriotism, heroism and duty to one's country. "It's how you're raised," said Lt. Col. Neil Skow, a guardsman and a firefighter, who came to mourn Sergeant Engeldrum. "We live in the greatest country in the world and we owe it something. The Police Department, the Fire Department, the Army - they're all honorable professions."

When firefighters die, they are mourned with honor in accordance with tradition. The dead man's rig leads the funeral cortege. His helmet rests beside the altar. Bagpipes play "Amazing Grace." A helicopter shudders overhead.

It is the same with soldiers: the folded flag, the crisp step of the honor guard, the stiff salutes.

Sergeant Engeldrum's funeral was a snapshot of New York, an old New York, which the pundits and the pollsters never seem to talk about. The American Legion was handing out American flags. Old men from the neighborhood lined up to take them. The fire hydrants were painted red, white and blue.

And firefighters by the thousands lined five blocks of Otis Avenue. It was hard to connect the small Bronx street, bright with Christmas lights and chilly in December, with the desert in Iraq - yet it was in Iraq that Sergeant Engeldrum, 39, was killed when his Humvee was torn to pieces by a roadside bomb.

Another firefighter, Daniel Swift, was injured in the same attack, and when he stood up in the church yesterday - leaning on a crutch, a patch across his eye - the crowd erupted into hoo-ahs and applause.

A third New Yorker, Pfc. Wilfredo F. Urbina, 29, of Baldwin on Long Island, was killed in the attack. His mother, Jeannette, attended Sergeant Engeldrum's funeral.

The dignitaries in the front row shook Firefighter Swift's hand: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Gov. George E. Pataki, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor.

In his eulogy, Mr. Bloomberg described the firefighters with an inscription from the firefighter memorial in Riverside Park. "Soldiers in a war that never ends," he said.

"Chris Engeldrum fought crime on our streets," Mr. Bloomberg said. "He battled smoke and fire in our houses and high rises. And when duty called, he traveled 6,000 miles away to fight for our freedom."

Firefighter Michael J. Schiraldi recalled Sergeant Engeldrum as "a child in a man's body." Drum, as Sergeant Engeldrum was known, would play with cap guns in the firehouse, he said, might throw a dish or two, and was famous for the rambling stories he would tell of fires past.

"Not one of us wants to be here," Firefighter Schiraldi said. "We'd rather be wakened from a peaceful sleep, because not one of us wants to believe that Chris is gone."

Before the Mass began, Teresa Purcell, the wife of Bob Purcell, Sergeant Engeldrum's former commander in the Guard, had said: "I'll always remember something Chris told me once. He said to me he wanted to teach his sons to give back to their country."

Sergeant Engeldrum's older son, Sean, was the last to eulogize his father, who is to be buried today in Arlington National Cemetery. Sean is 18. His brother, Royce, is 16. Their mother, Sharon, is pregnant.

Sean Engeldrum said his father was blessed with many titles - husband, nephew, firefighter, soldier, friend. "I want to give my own unique perspective," Sean Engeldrum said, "him as a dad."

So he described how his father played with him with Matchbox cars, was always there, but still joked that he would kick Sean out of the house when it came time.

"Being around him, I always felt protected and confident," he said. "My dad was the greatest man in the world. I only hope I can be half the man he was."