Thousands of firefighters and teary-eyed strangers joined friends and family here Wednesday to mourn the loss and honor the life of Steven Rucker, the only firefighter claimed by Southern California's savage wildfires last month.
For those closest to the Novato Fire Protection District engineer, it was a time to celebrate the man who had loved country music, doted on his wife and two children -- ages 2 and 7 -- and dreamed since boyhood of wearing the firefighter's badge.
For residents of Rucker's slow-paced town of Novato, long home to hundreds of Bay Area firefighters and police officers, it marked a painful loss of innocence.
And for the uniformed colleagues who flocked to the Marin Center from around the state and as far away as New York City, it was a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice that shadows firefighters everywhere. Many had fought the firestorms that ravaged 740,000 acres, burned more than 3,400 homes and left 20 dead. To them, the solemn service -- with its honor guard, procession of dignitaries and mournful bagpipes -- offered a moving sense of closure to an experience both awesome and humbling.
"This was a career fire. There are firefighters who will work 30 years without experiencing what we did," said Fremont Fire Capt. Chris Harper, whose strike team was just a mile away from Rucker when flames overcame him near the San Diego County resort town of Julian. "The sacrifices were not only made by Steven Rucker, but by the other families affected by the loss of their loved ones. We're here for them as well."
Rucker, 38, and three other members of the Novato team were overtaken by a sudden flare-up while protecting a home Oct. 29. Two firefighters made it into the house with minor injuries. Their captain, Doug McDonald, suffered burns over 18% of his body trying to rescue Rucker and remains hospitalized in San Diego in critical condition.
The memorial was the largest organized in recent memory in quiet, upscale Marin County. More than 300 polished engines motored into a massive parking lot near the Marin Veteran's Memorial Auditorium. Taped to the windshield of one Los Angeles County Fire Department service rig was an aerial photograph of firefighters spelling out Rucker's name.
They hailed from small departments in Paradise, Wilmar, the Russian River and Rincon Valley, and larger departments in San Diego, Orange, Pasadena, and the Bay Area. Also present were a dozen firefighters from New York City. Since Sept. 11, 2001, they have vowed to return the outpouring of support shown to them, said New York Fire Department firefighter Danny Noonan.
Still, the imposing Noonan could not bear to enter the auditorium, paying his respects instead under a blazing autumn sun.
"I lost 10 guys from my firehouse. I just can't look at the fatherless children again, but we're here for them," he said. "We have such a debt of gratitude to firefighters all over the country."
Residents flocked to the service from throughout the Bay Area, moved by Rucker's story and the threat of fire that hounds so much of California in an era of rampant growth.
"Everybody's here for the same reason. It could have been your house or your dad," said Julie Pizzo, 42, of Tiburon.
As thousands of firefighters arranged themselves in procession, a rotating honor guard stood stone-faced in front of Engine 6162, the rig that Rucker fled in his search for safety. Bits of charred hose hung off the rear. Next to it stood a smiling portrait of Rucker.
Flanking Rucker's wife, Cathy, children Kristen and Wesley, and other family, friends and fellow firefighters, were local and state dignitaries. Gov. Gray Davis, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger attended, as did several Marin County officials. Representatives of Rep. Lynn Woolsey and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer bestowed on the widow three U.S. flags that had been flown at the Capitol in Rucker's honor.
Davis called Rucker "a genuine American hero" for volunteering to fight San Diego County's worst fire.
A video collage showed Rucker with his sleeping newborn, delivering toys at the annual Christmas drive, and squatting with a gleeful grin next to "Little Red," his Mazda pickup truck that bore the vanity plate "FIRE RUC."
The man known as "the Ruckster" wanted to work in Novato so fervently that he invested $8,000 in laser eye surgery so he could pass the department's vision test. He even took Cathy, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chemist, to the fire station for a tour at the end of their first date. And he was so emotionally tied to those he served that he gave his own son the middle name Evan, after a 19-month old Novato drowning victim whom he had tried unsuccessfully to revive.
Now his town is grieving too. The northernmost city in Marin County, it has grown from a small town with dirt streets to a pricier enclave of more than 50,000. But in its heart, many here say, it remains a small town -- one that has long been a home to police officers and firefighters.
Placards declaring, "We'll Miss You Steve," cropped up next to election signs. Residents decided to rename one street "Rucker Ridge." Counselors have spent hours with Rucker's colleagues and their spouses, addressing waves of anxiety, depression and guilt, said trauma counselor and former Novato Police Officer Michael Poole.
And for the wife and children left behind, this city has opened up like a spigot. More than $100,000 already has accumulated in a Bank of Marin account set up for the family, with more than $40,000 going to a separate account for McDonald. At the local Albertsons, a firefighter's boot is perched on each checkout stand, gathering fistfuls of cash for Rucker's family.
"Firemen are a very special breed," said cashier Jill Medeiros, a Novato resident whose father is a retired firefighter and whose 20-year-old son is training to become one. "People have been very, very generous."
Novato hasn't lost a fireman since Chief George Cavalero died of a heart attack in the 1960s. That peace was shattered by a blaze hundreds of miles away.
"I think after 9/11, everybody realizes that firemen are vulnerable. But it hasn't happened to us before," said Mayor Michael Di Girogio, a local real estate agent. "We're asking, 'Why us, and why Steve?' "
At Mancuso's, a sports bar and local watering hole for firefighters, a grass-roots charity effort is taking root. Community volunteer John Coleman and city inspector Dudley Helbing didn't know Steven Rucker. But they learned of the couple's love for country music star Shania Twain and this week found four tickets to an upcoming Twain concert for Cathy Rucker. A can sits on the bar, collecting cash for a limousine ride. Participants plan a benefit for the family at the bar next month.