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Some sadness can be sounded only by bagpipes.
Melancholy notes on ancient instruments tug at hearts when fumbling words fail.
With little notice and from miles away, about 100 bagpipers and drummers from fire department bands traveled to Toledo to perform during a Last Alarm funeral service for two fallen city firefighters.
Privates James Dickman and Stephen Machcinski, killed in the line of duty on Sunday, were remembered Thursday during a service filled with somber ceremony at the SeaGate Convention Centre.
The International Association of Fire Fighters Massed Pipes and Drums played for the mourning families, for their fellow firefighters, for tradition.
They came from California to New Hampshire — from all over Ohio and and everywhere in between, including Pittsburgh and Indianapolis — to pay respects.
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“When we have the opportunity — and believe me it is an opportunity — to come and play for fallen brothers even in Toledo, Ohio, it’s not a lot different than playing for someone that was killed in the line of duty in the city right next to us,” said Kem Murray, a bagpiper with the Orange County, California, Fire Authority Pipes and Drums.
“It’s a small community and when a firefighter like these two firefighters were killed in the line of duty, it hits us all, and all it takes — firemen are kind of funny this way — all you have to do is ask.”
Playing the pipes at firefighter and police funerals is a practice that dates to the 1800s, when immigrants came to the United States and found work in the dangerous, difficult, less desirable public safety professions that others didn’t want, said Mark Lundquist, a captain with the Orange County Fire Authority stationed in Seal Beach, Calif., and a pipe major with the Orange County Fire Authority Pipes and Drums.
The bagpipe tradition took root at funerals for all firefighters, not just those of Scottish or Irish descent, and now fire department bands are ready to send bagpipers whenever a firefighter has been killed.
Eric Pinkham, a Toledo firefighter and member of the Toledo Firefighters Pipes and Drums, helped send out the word to bagpipers across the country.
“This is what we do the best. We say good-bye the best of anything,” Mr. Pinkham said after the pipers and drummers left the auditorium Thursday night following their performance of “Amazing Grace.”
The Orange County group learned of the local service Tuesday and quickly made arrangements to send two pipers, Mr. Lundquist said in a telephone interview from California.
“It’s happened enough times, unfortunately, that you get good at it,” he said.
“The call comes out, and we immediately send out a notice to all of our 24 members.”
The firefighters’ union helps with travel expenses, he said, and the band will dip into its own funds if needed.
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Washington Township Fire Chief Matt Hart began playing the bagpipes about four years ago because he saw the need for more local pipers. He prepared to play alongside his fellow Toledo bandmates with a heavy heart.
“It’s just my way of giving back to the families,” he said. “I hope I don’t have to do it again for a very long time.”
Bagpiping and firefighting are rich with tradition.
Details don’t go overlooked — from the music all pipers learn so they can perform together with only days’ notice to the attire they wear.
About 15 tartans relating to firefighting or specific fire departments are listed with the Scottish Tartans Authority, a nonprofit organization that maintains a database of tartans, cloth that is woven into distinct plaid patterns.
More than 40 tartans related to police work or police agencies are listed with the organization.
Many of the fire and police service tartans were registered in recent years, some likely created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as people recognized firefighters who are prepared to sacrifice their lives to help others, according to Brian Wilton, the authority’s director.
Pipers who performed Thursday sported kilts made of many different tartans. They showed up at the Park Inn ballroom already dressed in kilts, tuning their instruments and milling about before heading to the SeaGate Centre for a rehearsal before the service.
Members of the Toledo Firefighters Pipes and Drums, which includes musicians from neighboring fire departments, each choose their own pattern.
Pipers said members pick plaids based on a family connection to a Scottish clan or because they like the colors.
Jeff Klein, a piper and Perrysburg’s fire chief, is of German heritage, so he chose a Braveheart tartan that he liked for its purple, green, and gold colors.
Orange County pipers wear kilts made of a tartan associated with the Atholl district of Scotland.
The plaid was chosen for its “dignified use of green, blue, and red colors and for its subtle pattern,” according to the band’s Web site.
The Chicago Fire Department Pipes & Drums wear kilts featuring Cunningham Modern tartan, a bold, black-and-red square plaid that reflects colors commonly associated with fire trucks.
“It’s very important for pipes-and-drum bands,” said Douglas Crowley, a member of the Chicago Fire Department and a bagpiper who hoped to travel to Toledo for private services later this week.
“It is really their identity.”
As an added connection, one of the Chicago band’s artistic directors is a bagpiper with the surname Cunningham, Mr. Crowley said, in a telephone interview.
Carolyn Cook, a pipe major for the Louisville Fire & Rescue Pipes and Drums, which did not send members to Toledo, designed that band’s tartan.
She incorporated colors from the Louisville firefighter uniform: Red symbolizes courage; blue, honor; white, strength, and gold, integrity.
The Lucas County Sheriff Pipes and Drums, which also provides services for the Toledo Police Department, wear the tartan of the Scottish Black Watch, a dark blue, green, and black plaid.
Pipe Major Don Newman said the tartan was chosen when the group formed about a dozen years ago.
“It was traditionally the tartan worn by the Campbells, who were the king’s police force,” Mr. Newman said. “So that’s why we wear that one.”
The sheriff group did not plan to participate in the service Thursday, though Mr. Newman said some members also play with the Toledo fire group.
Behind the pageantry, pomp, and plaid is the pride of being a firefighter and playing a part in saying good-bye to a comrade.
Like the colorful threads that create each tartan, bagpiping has become “interwoven into the culture” of the fire service, Mr. Crowley said.
Bagpipes and their loud, mournful notes seem to sum up the sadness and pay homage when lives are lost.
“They will either make you cry or make you dance — one or the other,” Mr. Lundquist said.
As strains of “Amazing Grace” filled the SeaGate Centre, played on scores of bagpipes, the music pricked the eyes, filled hearts: The sound of firefighters’ farewell.
Staff writer Alexandra Mester contributed to this report.
Contact Vanessa McCray at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.