It was the last time they pulled on their white gloves and dressed in their pressed formal uniforms. The last time they stood in rigid detail, saluted crisply and stared stoically as a helicopter flew overhead. The last time the bells tolled and the drums beat and the pipes bleated for a victim of the World Trade Center collapse.
Monday, Michael Ragusa of Brooklyn was the last of the firefighters killed in the terrorist attacks to be memorialized in what has become a ritual of structured formality and nameless emotion since the numbers first started coming in almost two years ago.
Ragusa, 29, of Engine 279 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, was one of 343 firefighters killed on Sept. 11, 2001, a number former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called "staggering."
Of those firefighters killed, the remains of 209, including Ragusa's, have not been identified. Uncertain of whether any of his remains are stored in the medical examiner's trailers, his family decided to bury a vial of blood that he had donated to a blood marrow center.
The vial was placed in a coffin that was wrapped tightly in an American flag. It came to the service the way it left -- set in the caisson of a fire engine. It was buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Staten Island.
More than 5,000 firefighters, some from as far away as Los Angeles, came to pay their respects at the Church of St. Bernard in Bergen Beach section of Brooklyn.
It was not the first funeral they attended for a fallen colleague.
Many firefighters strained Monday to remember how many memorial services they have struggled through since they began on Sept. 15, 2001, with services for First Deputy Commissioner William Feehan, the Rev. Mychal Judge, Chief of Department Peter Ganci and firefighter Raymond York.
"You get numb from the head down," said Mike Kessler, 31, of Engine 97 in the Bronx. "It starts from the heart and spreads."
Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, addressing Ragusa's family who sat in the front pew of the packed church, said: "Our grief doesn't measure against yours. But the Fire Department is also a family. When we lose one of our own we lose part of ourselves."
As the service ended, Ragusa's colleagues gathered in rows, 12 deep in some places, to begin the routine they know so well. Except this time there was something different.
The Emerald Society Pipes and Drums band played "Athol Highlanders," an uplifting song that stood in sharp relief to the dirges that have accompanied the hundreds of other services.
"We've never done that before," said a piper. "But it was appropriate. It's kind of putting it to bed. It's time to get to living."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times