CINCINNATI – We can only hope that the boy wearing a firefighter's hat outside FAO Daryl Gordon's funeral Wednesday will grow up to be like him.
Gordon used to chase fire trucks on his bike when he was 8 or 9, his nephew, Cincinnati police officer John Gordon Jr., said while paying tribute to his uncle inside St. Peter in Chains Cathedral. It was a poignant moment that raised smiles on the 1,000 or so mourners and hundreds listening outside.
"He knew what he wanted to be then," John Gordon Jr. said.
On this solemn day, a heartbroken and proud Cincinnati gave a stirring farewell to a heroic firefighter who not only saved lives but set an example for all of us, showing how we should care for others and how we should live.
Speaking at Gordon's funeral, the mayor, city manager, fire chief, union leader and the celebrant, the Rev. Mr. Royce Winters, called the 54-year-old a hero. We learned that Gordon and other firefighters rescued 12 residents from the fire at King Towers apartments in Madisonville where Gordon was killed last week.
The emotional two-and-a-half hour ceremony – from the solemn procession from Gordon's firehouse at Fifth and Central downtown to the funeral service at the cathedral four blocks away – was a heart-filled, grateful tribute from the city to a man most of us didn't know until last week, but who came to exemplify the city's greatest good.
Starting from the firehouse, draped in sad black bunting, the same bright red, polished Heavy Rescue 14 truck that Gordon drove to emergencies carried his casket to the cathedral.
Hung on the front of the truck were Gordon's turnout gear – his helmet, boots and coat with orange and black reflective tape and his name across the bottom.
North on Central Avenue past the Firefighters Memorial, where people have been leaving flowers and prayers the past few days, then east on Seventh to Plum, an honor guard of 40 male and female firefighters carrying firefighters' axes led the procession. They were followed by colorful bagpipers whose music rose above the silent tribute of hundreds of Cincinnatians standing along the streets.
Gordon's family, dressed in black, walked stoically behind the fire truck and Gordon's flag-draped casket. His wife, Andrea, was center, arm and arm with their daughters, Angelique and Chelsea, on either side.
Last came the impressive sight of 700 Cincinnati firefighters, wearing their dress blues, marching slowly, row after row, like an army in drills, extending nearly two blocks long.
Once the procession reached the cathedral, there was a command and hundreds of firefighters filling the steps snapped to attention, then to salute, as more Cincinnatians watched in respectful silence in front of the Isaac Wise Temple across the street.
There wasn't a sound except for birds chirping.
After the 10 pallbearers carried the casket inside, and the mourners had taken their places with Gordon's wife and daughters in the front row, city officials and others who knew him paid tribute to the 30-year veteran firefighter.
"A true hero is not defined by one act of bravery but by a lifetime," Fire Chief Richard A. Braun said.
Heroes have characteristics that set them apart. They strive to make everyone around them better. They care about people. They put the welfare of others above their own, Braun said.
"When the opportunity comes to put themselves in harm's way to save another, they know exactly what to do - no hesitation, no questions, no doubt," Braun said.
He wasn't just referring to the act of heroism that sent Gordon door to door in that burning apartment building, looking for people trapped inside, but to Gordon's lifelong service that included the bomb squad and UC Medical Center's Air Care and Mobile Care unit as well as heavy rescue.
"Angela," he said, speaking to Gordon's wife, "your loss is unimaginable, but we are dedicated to be here for you forever."
Speaking to Gordon's daughters, Braun said, "When people ask you about your dad, you can tell them, 'My dad is a hero.'"
City Manager Harry Black said Gordon, through the stories about him since his heroic death, "pulled us closer together as a city."
"Daryl exemplified the definition of a public servant on and off job," Black said.
"Daryl believed in making the world a better place. You don't walk into a burning building looking to help your fellow man unless you have this notion deeply woven into your DNA. We will honor Daryl in the way we treat and interact with one another."
Calling Cincinnati "heartbroken," Mayor John Cranley asked how Cincinnati could move on after Gordon's death and said he found the answer in a Bruce Springsteen song – and in Gordon himself.
"I have found inspiration in an excerpt from 'Into the Fire,' written by Bruce Springsteen after 9/11, which is a song clearly applicable to Daryl Gordon," Cranley said.
It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire
I need you near, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire
"Today, we mourn Daryl Gordon who was called someplace higher," Cranley said. "We come together to mourn a man who was known as a 'teddy bear,' quick to laugh, quick to lend a hand, and somebody who mentored others. A man who dedicated his life to public service but knew how to have fun, enjoying his Woodford Reserve, his friends, his Kappa fraternity brothers. A man who gave this city 30 years, loved his wife and raised two beautiful daughters."
Cranley said Gordon had the “love and duty” to be called to someplace higher.
"His faith was tested and he came through. He did not waver, he did not retreat," Cranley said.
Cranley said "Into the Fire" is written not to give comfort to the fallen fighter who did his duty, but to ask the fallen fighter who has already given his life to give those of us left behind even more -- to provide comfort to us even from the grave.
"Bruce ends the song by asking the fallen fighter for help, singing:
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love
"We need Daryl more than he needs us," Cranley said. "Today’s funeral serves is a reminder to us to share Daryl’s strength, faith, hope and love. To believe that love and duty are real and bind us together. To believe that those who die for those ideals live forever in our hearts."
The funeral was more uplifting than mournful, with soulful music from the African-American Ministries Gospel Choir, the Church of Resurrection Choir and the Cincinnati Men of Fire Quintet.
There were lighter remembrances, too. District I Chief Raifel Prophett said Gordon once saw a fire chief light a cigarette in a firehouse.
"His moral compass was true and straight. There were no grays – only black and white or right and wrong," Prophett said. "That's why it was easy in the '80s, when the city had instituted a no-smoking policy, for Daryl to strip the cigarette out of the fire chief's mouth and say, 'No smoking in the firehouse, Chief.'"
Gordon's nephew said Gordon treated anyone he met like family.
"Not just like a friend, but family," he repeated.
"Daryl always had his hands open for everyone in need whether it was just to talk to, whether it was a favor you needed done, whether it was money - even though he was only going to give you 50 cents.
"Yeah, he's a penny pincher," John Gordon Jr. said.
Gordon's nephew choked up and had to pause. He asked the members of Heavy Rescue 14 to stand, and the crowd applauded them.
"They brought Daryl home. The day they went into that fire they saved those 12 people ... Remember what I told you," he said, addressing his uncle's crew members. "Continue to do what you do. You signed up for this job for a reason. Keep being heroes and saving lives."
Winters added more touching moments when he sang "Be Not Afraid" at the end of the homily. He tried to comfort and inspire both Gordon's fellow firefighters and his family.
"For the men and women in blue, stay steady. We need you. We need you on that front line," Winters said. "Because there are those who won't do it. There are those who weren't called to do it. But you have been called to walk in the midst of danger and to do it with great professionalism, with great strength, with great competence, with great love for what you do."
Leaning forward toward Gordon's wife and daughters, holding out his right hand, Winters continued: "So in the midst of hardship, God is there. Consolation, strength, refuge … So continue to walk, but never walk alone, for God is on your side."
When the funeral ended, there was another impressive sight.About 400 fire trucks joined in a miles-long procession to take Gordon's casket to Oak Hill Cemetery for a burial attended by family, friends and firefighters. Thousands of people - from adults to young children - gathered along the route, hands over their hearts or waving flags. It took the procession nearly two hours to make the drive to Springfield Township.
About 3,500 firefighters from the Tri-State and around the country came to town to pay their respects at Tuesday's visitation and Wednesday's funeral. About 130 from Columbus helped man firehouses so Cincinnati firefighters could attend Gordon's funeral.
At the cemetery, flags and medals were presented to Gordon's family. Three AirCare helicopters flew over in respect.
As bagpipers played "Amazing Grace," a firefighter from the bomb squad - covered head to toe in full protective gear - walked over a hillside with one of the bagpipers in a symbolic farewell. An ordnance was detonated in Gordon's honor and his last call was read over the speakers:
"This is the final alarm for Cincinnati Fire Department Fire Apparatus Operator Daryl Gordon. King Towers Apartments. Fire box number 8371."