Bagpipes droned and drums thumped as a sea of blue encircled the white church.
In white gloves, hats and dark uniforms, firefighters gathered to honor a colleague who died doing what friends and family say he loved: answering someone’s call for help.
Four days after John E. Ulmschneider was fatally shot while responding to a 911 call, thousands of emergency personnel from around the region streamed from buses, ambulances and hulking firetrucks Wednesday and lined up at a church in St. Mary’s County to pay their final respects.
It was at least the sixth time first responders in the region came together for a line of duty death and the second for Prince George’s County, where Ulmschneider worked, in recent weeks.
Banding together to rise above such tragedy is “something we have had to do far too often,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.
“They answer the call, never knowing what could happen,” Baker said. “They just do their job and answer the call. That’s what John did last Friday. He answered the call and lost his life doing what he loved to do.”
Ulmschneider, 37, and fellow firefighter Kevin Swain, 19, were shot Friday while answering a call in the Temple Hills-Camp Springs area. A man called 911 to ask for a welfare check on his brother’s home after he grew worried that his diabetic brother had suffered a blackout or a seizure, county officials said. Fearing that the 61-year-old man inside was having a medical emergency, firefighters tried to break down the door to the home after knocking several times and announcing themselves as rescuers but getting no response, fire department officials said.
As the firefighters entered the home, the man inside fired, hitting Ulmschneider, Swain and the brother who had called 911, authorities said. Swain and the brother were injured but survived.
“He was doing what all of us do every day,” said Prince George’s Assistant Fire Chief Alan Doubleday, a longtime friend and colleague of Ulmschneider’s.
A hearse carrying Ulmschneider’s body arrived at St. John Francis Regis Catholic Church in Hollywood, Md., on Tuesday afternoon and was under constant vigil by members of the Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department.
Local firefighters and some from as far away as Canada, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia stood in a somber salute as police escorted his family to Wednesday’s funeral service.
Teresa Crisman recalled Ulmschneider as a particularly caring firefighter. At calls during which people were panicking or suffering from low blood sugar, he’d often make peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for them in their kitchens, sit with them and calm them .
“By the time they finished the sandwich, they were doing better,” said Crisman, who does community outreach for the Prince George’s fire department. “He was that guy that went the extra mile.”
During the two-hour service, other friends and colleagues remembered the man affectionately nicknamed “Skillet” as someone who was “farm-boy strong,” had “the heart of a giant” and was a “gallon of a man squeezed into a one-pint bottle” with equal parts heart, muscle, determination and silly.
“Skillet had two speeds,” said Andrew K. Pantelis, head of the Prince George’s fire and paramedic’s union. “Fast and faster.”
Ulmschneider’s friend and partner on the fire department, Jimmy Clem, said Skillet loved to tinker with tools and fix things and adored his wife and 2-year-old.
“Running calls will never be the same,” Clem said.
Swain, who is recovering from the shooting, watched the services from his hospital room through a live stream while his family attended Ulmschneider’s funeral.
The Rev. Raymond Schmidt, who has known Ulmschneider since he was 7 and baptized the firefighter’s daughter, said in cases such as these, people tend to ask, “Why?”
But “people like Skillet don’t ask why,” Schmidt said. “They ask what’s the next step? How do I respond?”
Schmidt said the people in the church who regularly burst through doors may not look at locked doors the same way again, but he encouraged them to remember Ulmschneider’s sacrifice and to keep serving and responding.
That call to service is what many said they had vow to honor.
During his eulogy, Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc S. Bashoor said he was asked Tuesday by someone aspiring to be a firefighter why bad things happen to good people.
“Sometimes bad things just happen,” Bashoor said. “It’s our job to rise above the chaos and make a difference.”
Under a cloudless blue sky, mourners poured out of the church before Ulmschneider’s flag-draped coffin was slowly placed in to the back of a red-and-white firetruck.
With a vehicle carrying his wife and daughter following, the truck rumbled as it prepared to head to a cemetery.
Firefighters and paramedics lined the narrow road leading away from the church in a final farewell.