Almost 60 Montgomery County firefighters, their necks festooned with Mardi Gras beads, were greeted by a ceremonial police department bagpiper and scores of family members as they arrived home yesterday from a two-week stint in New Orleans.
The firefighters, and another contingent of about 30 who arrived late last night, spent the trip helping their fellow firefighters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"Welcome Home MONTGOMERY COUNTY'S FINEST" read the huge banner from the ceiling of a large garage at the county's Public Safety Training Academy in Rockville. Children held bunches of balloons and hand-lettered signs saying, "Welcome Home Dad," as relatives hoisted toddlers on shoulders so their fathers could spot them readily as they got off the bus that brought them from the airport.
Ryan Loher scooped up 5-week-old Carter, the son he'd left behind to go to New Orleans. "It was very hard," Loher said of leaving his newborn. "But it was worth it. It was fabulous; we got to help a lot of people."
The Montgomery firefighters stayed in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi River with fellow firefighters from New York and the Chicago area. For the most part, group members said yesterday, they concentrated on assisting members of the devastated city's firefighting force, helping clean out their muddied homes. They also refurbished several fire stations.
Capt. John Bosco of Darnestown said he was most affected by the huge personal losses that New Orleans firefighters suffered. "A couple of days ago, one guy came back to work in flip-flops, a T-shirt and shorts. That's all he had," he said.
"I really think that we made a difference in two weeks," Bosco added, saying that they had gotten some fire stations open and that "firefighters who didn't have homes that were livable, now they have homes that are livable."
"I'm here to welcome home my sons," said Rena Damskey, who was at the academy with her husband, retired Montgomery battalion fire chief John Damskey. The large delegation of Damskeys -- 11 in all -- wore matching T-shirts greeting their relatives as "heroes."
About 15 county police officers were sent to provide security for the firefighters. About 100 county personnel, of which about 75 were firefighters, journeyed to New Orleans or Mississippi, said county fire department spokesman Pete Piringer.
The group emerged from the bus with more members than when it left. On leashes were Voodoo and Cajun, two dogs found starving and homeless in New Orleans whom two firefighters have temporarily adopted and named.
Michael Ader, 22, said he saw Voodoo, a black, medium-size part-Labrador, in the Martin Luther King Jr. neighborhood near fire station No. 16, which Ader and other Montgomery firefighters were cleaning up.
It took "two chicken sandwiches" and a lot of coaxing to bring Voodoo, who was timid around humans, close enough to leash, Ader said. He took the dog to an animal shelter and two days later, because it was still unclaimed, he was allowed to take it home.
Voodoo's picture and Ader's name were put on a Web site so that the dog's original owner can find him. The same procedure was followed by firefighter Corinne Mann, who came home with Cajun, a golden Labrador.
If no one claims the pets in three months, Ader said, he and Mann will be allowed to keep them. "I'm a foster parent right now," said the volunteer firefighter, who also is a junior at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Fire chief Thomas W. Carr Jr., who greeted the group at the airport and also had visited them in New Orleans, said that by relieving the New Orleans department, "our guys provided them an opportunity to reflect upon their personal situation and start pulling things together."
Firefighter Steve Wiseman, 47, who left most of his clothes with one New Orleans firefighter he befriended, said the firefighters there "were overwhelmed by what we did." And to show their gratitude, they put on a mini Mardi Gras on Saturday night for their departing comrades, complete with a float and colorful beads.
"It was their way of showing that the spirit of New Orleans is back and that we helped bring it back," Wiseman said.