In aftermath of tragedy, FDNY bagpipers march on

This is usually a busy time of year for the Pipes and Drums squad of the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY). It is when they normally play at the city's annual marathon, and, in recent years, have strutted up Broadway in ticker-tape parades for the World Series-winning Yankees.

But since 343 firefighters were reported missing, and presumed lost, in the attack on the World Trade Center, they have dropped almost all other assignments - including fighting fires - and assumed a single mission.

Rejecting all offers of help from other bagpipe brigades, the Pipes and Drums corps pledged to play at the funerals of every firefighter who died in the line of duty, just as they've done for the past 40 years.

"We're not going to give up the tradition," says Ed Geraghty, who has fought New York's fires and played bagpipes for a quarter century. "We can make it dignified and make it special."

That's not too difficult on a day when only two memorial services are held, and a full complement of 40 bagpipers and drummers can attend both.

But on a Saturday when 14 New York City firefighters will be honored at ceremonies spread between New Jersey and Boston, only a single bagpiper, or maybe two, may make some of the faraway services.

Whether marching as a unit or playing alone, the pipers continue a tradition dating back a thousand years to the Scottish highlands and Ireland. Both countries claim credit for originating the modern bagpipe.

Irish pipers played in marches and fairs and accompanied sacred chants in Catholic churches.

Scottish warriors have played their pipes into battle since the time of William Wallace (now better known as Braveheart). The piercing notes - audible even miles away - provided solace during long marches, helped summon soldiers' courage, and, it was hoped, scared opposing armies.

When the New York Fire Department's Emerald Society decided to form a pipe-and-drum squad about 40 years ago, no one intended it to be merely a funeral brigade.

The idea was to introduce another bit of Irish culture into a fire department still dominated by natives of the Emerald Isle.

The band is still composed entirely of members of Irish ancestry - except for a single Jewish firefighter. They need at least one non-Irish piper to ensure that it doesn't always rain, jokes Jack Dugan, who has played with the band for 30 years.

Hardly any of these bagpipers had ever played an instrument before signing up with the Pipes and Drums. For most, it was just a way to express their heritage or to bond with fellow firefighters.

Every piper trains for two years and memorizes about 20 songs before he ever plays in public. It's not easy simultaneously marching, blowing the tube full of air, squeezing the canvas bag, and covering the stick's wooden holes that produce the notes.

The fire department doesn't provide any funding, but since Sept. 11, it has relieved members of their daytime assignments whenever they need to perform. Members buy their own $1,000 bagpipes. Paid performances help cover the cost of uniforms.

A third of the men in the band are retired from firefighting, but hardly anyone retires from the band. Three members have played for the band's entire history. Even if they can no longer march, they'll still perform if they can sit down.

Many of the veteran pipers played at a dozen firefighters' funerals that followed the department's previous most deadly fire, at a Brooklyn supermarket in 1978.

"We'd never thought it could get worse than that," says Mr. Geraghty.

Nothing, though, compares to the losses they've witnessed in the past two months. Among the dead this time is one of their own: Durrell "Bronco" Pearsall, a drummer who played with the group for more than seven years.

Three new members recently received what they call "battlefield commissions," getting their pipes earlier than usual to help augment the ranks that can play at funerals.

"Unfortunately, they're getting a lot of experience very quickly," says Frank McCutchen, who joined the group a decade ago. "Every day now, the [new] pipers sound better."

Three weeks ago, the entire Pipes and Drums squad gathered for a memorial service of its own at the World Trade Center site. They played the bagpipes together on the spot near the Marriott hotel's ruins, where Mr. Pearsall was last seen..

By now, the funeral procedure has become a regular routine. The pipers play "Amazing Grace" as the hearse arrives at the front of the church.

When the service ends, they pass under an American flag suspended between two truck ladders that are raised toward the sky.

They play "America the Beautiful" over and over until the last mourner has passed between their ranks. Then, after their leader yells, "dismissed," they lower their pipes and walk away. Time to continue their self-appointed mission..

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