It was hot when I arrived at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs for the ceremony to honor the memories of the 14 firefighters that died virtually within sight of the park 20 years ago on Storm King Mountain. Arriving 45 minutes before it was scheduled to begin, hoping to get the lay of the land and a good seat, the 90-degree heat had driven others to the sparse shade offered by a handful of trees around the perimeter of the space laid out in front of the stage.
Hundreds of white folding chairs were behind signs explaining that they were for the families and the elderly — all empty at that point. No one wanted to bake in the sun waiting for the commemoration to begin. Near the chairs was a small tent housing a sound board with dozens of dials and sliders like you would see at a concert.
By the time the program began, about a third of the white chairs were filled. Bob Zanella, who was the mayor of Glenwood Springs 20 years ago and was asked to be the master of ceremonies, said it looked like there would be room for everyone to sit in the chairs. Some people that were standing or sitting on the ground did take up the offer, but many remained where they were, comfortable in their shady spots. Several groups of uniformed firefighters, including the Craig Hotshots, stood in casual straight lines near the back, some in the shade and others in the bright, hot sun.
After taking some photos, I found a suitable shady spot on the ground. I could not see the stage because of the people that were standing behind the chairs, but could hear most of what the seven speakers said. Bagpipes, drums, Honor Guards and Color Guards set the mood.
Usually at a ceremony like this, there will be several politicians and heads of land management agencies either asked, or asking, to speak to the gathered crowd. But not yesterday at Two Rivers Park. One of the organizers told me that there was a conscious effort to avoid a parade of dignitaries across the stage. They wanted to keep it local and real. No one wants to hear a Senator or Assistant Secretary of Something blather on while no one is paying attention.
All of the speakers kept it meaningful, and personal. And they were all fairly brief except for one who began by saying he was allotted five minutes but could not do it in just five.
Near the end of the program a very, very light rain began to fall. The drops were few, tiny, invisible, and cold as they fell through the sunlight. No one left their seat or scrambled for shelter. It was not enough rain to get wet but I did shield my camera from the scattered rain drops. I looked at the sky and thought of tears.
When the Twin Otter smokejumper aircraft dropped the 14 purple streamers over Two Rivers Park, one landed about 15 feet from where I was sitting on the ground. A smiling small boy ran over and picked it up just after it landed.
After the program ended with a moment of silence many of the attendees walked about a hundred yards over to the memorial to see the statue of the three firefighters — a smokejumper, a firefighter with a chain saw over her shoulder, and a third holding an aviation helmet used by helitack crews. Surrounding the sculpture are 14 plaques with photos and descriptions of each of the firefighters that perished two decades ago. I was standing next to an elderly gentleman, and at first I thought he was wiping away a bug on his face, but he wasn’t. It was tears.