Tears. The somber ring of a silver bell outside the red-brick firehouse where D.C. firefighter Louis J. Matthews served his community. A twinkling procession led by a black-cloth-draped fire engine that stretched down Rhode Island Avenue NE as far as the eye could see.
For the second day in a row, firefighters in the District gathered to mourn the passing of a fallen comrade. To honor. And to pay tribute.
On a mostly gray day, lighted with wailing sirens and the flashing red and white lights of dozens of firetrucks, services were held for Matthews, 29, of Mitchellville.
Yesterday, Matthews, who belonged to Engine Company 26, was remembered for his bravery, and for his seven years of service to the fire department and his community -- as a father, son and "an American hero."
Inside St. Paul Baptist Church in Capitol Heights, hundreds of mourners filled the sanctuary where Matthews's silver casket rested within view of a wooden cross that hung behind the pulpit. There were prayers for Matthews's family: for his mother, Cassandra; for his son, Nicholas; for his stepdaughter, La Chrisia; and "for the brotherhood of firefighters."
The choir sang: "When we all get to heaven . . ."
The Rev. Robert J. Williams Sr. reminded the congregation of what was typed on the front of the funeral program: "A Service of Triumph for Firefighter Louis J. Matthews." It was to be a home-going. A celebration. So the organ filled the sanctuary. The drums, hand-clapping and "hallelujahs." The 23rd Psalm. And still, more tears.
Matthews died Monday, a day after he suffered third-degree burns over nearly his entire body when he and three other firefighters rushed into a burning Fort Lincoln town house in Northeast Washington, then were caught in a burst of superheated gases. Firefighter Anthony Phillips, 30, a four-year member of Engine Company 10, died about an hour after the blast. He was laid to rest Friday.
A third firefighter, Joseph Morgan Jr., 36, remains in critical condition with severe burns over more than half of his body. A fourth, Lt. Charles Redding, 41, was treated and released from the hospital last week.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) were among the city and national officials who attended the service yesterday.
"For seven years, Louis Matthews has served our city with distinction, bravery and enthusiasm," Williams said. "His service has come to an end, but his memory and his legacy will live on. His contribution to our community will never fade."
"Oh, there will be other firefighters," she said speaking at the service. "But there will never be another firefighter to fill the proud empty boots left by" Louis Matthews.
Outside the fire station at 1340 Rhode Island Ave. NE, where the flag flew at half-staff yesterday morning, two red fire engines glistened in the sun. Both engines were from fire departments in Maryland, along with a temporary crew who volunteered to cover for their District brothers so they could attend services.
"It's very sad," said Chris Jelenewicz, 35, a volunteer fire chief with the Chillum Adelphi Fire Department in Maryland. "The people I work with at my station are the best friends in the world. That is my family."
So was Matthews, said Jelenewicz, even though he did not know him.
"It's good to know we're a family that can come together," said J. Wilcher, 42, a firefighter from Glen Echo, standing outside the Northeast fire station. But "if you really want to be realistic, it's not the best time for the fire department because we're losing one of our own."
It was nearly noon. A silver bell that would signal the ceremonial final alarm as Matthews's coffin passed the station had been placed on a black table.
Outside St. Paul Baptist Church, scores of firefighters, dressed in navy jackets and pants, shirts and ties, gathered to pay their last respects. Dozens of firetrucks lined the street, awaiting the start of the procession. Speakers mounted outside the church carried the tributes, Scriptures and songs of the service into the afternoon air.
"I'm kind of numb," said Kevin A. Carr, 33, a D.C. firefighter with Engine Company 17, who knew Matthews and was on a biking trip when his friend died in the line of duty. Carr said Matthews had wanted to go on the trip from May 23 to June 2 but could not get the time off.
"Death is part of life," Carr said, standing in the church's parking lot, waiting for Matthews's coffin to be carried from the sanctuary to the red fire engine where a star-spangled flag fluttered in the wind. "But when you have somebody close to you, it kind of hits home. I'm just trying to make it right now."
Soon, the preacher emerged, and the pallbearers carrying their comrade's silver coffin. The rows of firefighters, some wearing dark shades, stood at attention as the coffin was led to Engine Company 26, the choir's song rising from the speakers: "The storm is passing over . . . hallelujah." The firefighters saluted. Some wiped away tears, some from the corners of their eyes, others from beneath their shades.
At 3:25 p.m., the flashing lights of the funeral procession led by 17 motorcycles flickered in the distance. Men, women and small children, some toting flags, stood along Rhode Island Avenue NE at the curb, or they sat in chairs, waiting to pay final respects. Most watched silently while waiting. The procession drew closer, then closer. . . .
Finally, the firetruck carrying Matthews's coffin stopped at the fire station where above the "1340" address, Matthews's smoky yellow fire helmet hung.
The bell rang, six times, then again six times, then six times again. Then more tears.
CAPTION: Firefighters pay their respects to Louis J. Matthews, who died after a May 30 blaze in Northeast Washington. Officials are investigating the fire.