UPPER WEST SIDE — Riverside Drive became a river of blue Wednesday as thousands of firefighters marched in a solemn procession to honor department members who died in the last year.
The FDNY's annual memorial service, held at the Firemen's Memorial at West 100th Street and Riverside Drive, marked the passing of six firefighters, one EMT and two paramedics who have died since October 2010.
None died in the line of duty though some died of illnesses believed to be linked to working on 9/11.
Roughly 6,000 FDNY members stood at attention on Riverside Drive as a silver bell rang once for each of the departed department members. Family members wiped tears as the nine names were read aloud.
"Thank you for facing dangers that the rest of us can only imagine," Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the silent group of firefighters, wearing dark dress uniforms that stood out against the bright greenery of Riverside Park.
Speaking to the families of those who'd passed away, Fire Chief Edward Kilduff said the thousands of department members who attended the memorial service were "the best message of pride and support that we as a department can demonstrate for you."
After wreaths were laid at the base of the 99-year-old monument, the mass of firefighters headed north, streaming past drummers and bagpipers.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" said Upper West Sider Carol Iannone, who sat on a bench in Riverside Park watching the quiet procession. "You feel the protection they give the city, and you remember the ones who've died. You sense that it's a brotherhood and something that they're proud of."
When the procession stopped a few blocks later, the somber event took on the feeling of a family reunion, with firefighters greeting each other with warm handshakes and back slaps.
"Nice to see you. Be safe," said one FDNY member to another as they parted ways near the monument.
Then dozens of firefighters headed to O'Connell's Irish pub on West 108th Street and Broadway. They flipped their formal hats upside down and lined them up on the bar to collect cash to pay for drinks.
"We pay our respects, then we come here and celebrate because that's what they would want," said an Upper East Side firefighter who retired in 2005 after 27 years with FDNY.
"If you die, you've got to have a big party. That's what all these guys would want," he said, gesturing to crowd of firefighters.