At the Jefferson Avenue firehouse that is home to Engine 21, a flag bearing a gold star hangs from the rafters — a reminder of a 28-year-old Buffalo firefighter, Christopher Dill, who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“He was a guy you couldn’t miss, always joking around, until the bell rang,” says Jim LaMacchia, chief of the battalion that includes Engine 21. “He was no nonsense at a fire, always trying to do it right, do it better.”
Christopher Dill did not, however, die fighting a fire. He died fighting insurgents in Iraq, ambushed while training an untried unit of Iraqi recruits.
"For Christopher, being a soldier and being a fireman went hand-in-hand," says his widow, Dawn. "It was his job just like putting out fires, and he never acted like going to Iraq was somehow bad luck or something. It was his duty and he did it."
Back at the Jefferson Street firehouse, the war seems much closer. Dill, whose father is a retired Buffalo arson investigator, was a staff sergeant with the 98th Division of the U.S. Army Reserves, a unit called up in September 2004. Dill's presence is still felt there, bolstered by photos of him on duty in Buffalo, and pictures he sent back to the house proudly posing with the Iraqi greenhorns he was trying to season. When his body arrived back in Buffalo in April, his casket was carried from the airport by Engine 21, and thousands upon thousands of local residents lined the route.
At a reunion this summer of his friends near the Buffalo Bills' Ralph Wilson Stadium, the same tavern where they had gathered to see Sgt. Dill off on Sept. 11, 2004, his widow talked about their life together. (Play the audio slide show above for more from the gathering.) Dawn, who met her future husband in grammar school, says she could never have gone on without the help of the firefighters.
“They were there the entire time, they still check on me all the time,” she says, smiling across the table at his friends. “You’re almost married to ‘em just like you’re married to your husband.”
These veteran firefighters still tear up at the mention of their friend's name.
“It’s been tough for the fire department lately,” says Lt. Mike Croft, 48, who led Dill’s platoon. “They’ve closed fire houses and they may close some more and lay some men off. Morale has not been great. When we got the news about Chris, I think it put all that in perspective. … Chris, his last gift to us, was really, to renew that sense of pride that we have in being members of the department and taking care of one another as a brotherhood.”
Several of Dill's colleagues wondered aloud about the meaning of it all, echoing doubts about the war heard around the country, but also noting that "Christopher never had any doubt that what he was doing was not right," Croft says. "He did what he always did here — he didn't ask questions. And whatever you feel about the war, you have to pay tribute to that."