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Utahn, 90 other fallen firefighters honored

EMMITSBURG, Md. — Turner Koyle, 8, had a special seat during part of Sunday's ceremony honoring firefighters killed in the line of duty: President Bush's lap.

Koyle's father, Spencer S. Koyle, was killed last year while fighting the Devil's Den Fire near Oak City, Millard County. Bush honored him and 90 other firefighters at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the National Fire Academy in Maryland.

"It takes a special kind of person to be a firefighter," Bush said. "It begins with a different sense of direction. When an area becomes too dangerous for everybody else, you take it over. When others are looking for the exits, our firefighters are looking for the way in. When the frightened occupants of a burning building are rushing down the stairwell, our firefighters are going the opposite direction — up the stairs, and toward the flames."

Koyle, 33, a fire operations supervisor for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, died Aug. 17, 2006. An investigation and report issued last year found that Koyle's commanders urged him not go to the area where he eventually died. He tried to find safety in a fire shelter, but the fire overtook him.

Tom Suwyn, West zone fire management officer at the BLM Richfield Field Office, sat with Koyle's family during the ceremony. Suwyn, who was Spencer Koyle's supervisor for 10 years and a friend of the family, said the ceremony gave him a feeling of "healing," that even though it is just over a year since Koyle's death "it's not forgotten."

Suwyn, Justin Johnson, the BLM Richfield Field Office fuels coordinator, Spencer Koyle's parents, two of his three children, his widow Nichole and her parents had front row seats during the ceremony, Suwyn said. During a break from reading the names of the deceased for a song to be sung, Bush sat down with the family and invited Turner Koyle to sit in his lap.

"I was pretty impressed," Suwyn said of Bush's actions and the whole ceremony itself.

A 50-foot American flag hung suspended from two fire-truck ladders extended into the air. Hundreds of firefighters in full dress uniform gathered for the memorial. Bagpipes and drums from firefighter bands from across the country opened the ceremony following flags from the various state fire departments and federal agencies of those who died.

As the 91 names were read — 87 who died in 2006 and 4 who had died in previous years but were honored at this year's ceremony — the families received a folded American flag and rose, along with a few seconds of personal time with Bush, who hugged widows and talked with children and waved to other family members or co-workers elsewhere in the audience.

Sheldon Wimmer, BLM's Utah office fire management officer, Randy Hart, the assistant state fire management officer and Timothy Murphy, of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, stood as Spencer Koyle's name was called.

"It was a real loss to us," Wimmer said. "Not only was he a really great guy, but he was a trainer, a mentor, just a kingpin in our organizational structure."

Wimmer has been to five previous ceremonies for other firefighters killed and said in his experience he has found the event gives closure to family members.

"It gives finality to it," said Wimmer, who wore a black band around his badge in honor of those who died. He said after a year filled with first times the person is not there for various events, the ceremony is a good way to help the families move on.

Sunday's ceremony followed a Saturday night candlelight vigil and dinner for the families at which grief counselors were on hand to talk. Wimmer said many families bond with each other during the weekend and stay in touch afterward.

Those gathered for the ceremony were also able to see the "To Lift a Nation" monument created by Salt Lake City-based sculptor Stan Watts depicting three firefighters raising a flag at the site of the World Trade Center collapse after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City.

The 19-foot tall firefighters raising a real American flag made its way to Maryland last week. The monument will be dedicated on Nov. 5.