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FAREWELL TO 'A COMRADE AND A FRIEND'
FIREFIGHTERS, SOLDIERS PAY TRIBUTE TO FALLEN HERO

Hundreds of firefighters and soldiers formed two long, arrow-straight lines framing the route leading the Engine 21 fire truck to the front entrance of St. Edmund's Church.

There, the fire truck stopped. In one of the day's many symbolic moments, four Buffalo firefighters aboard the truck handed the flag-draped coffin of Christopher W. Dill to four Army honor guard members.

Two proud, loyal brother- and sisterhoods -- the Buffalo Fire Department and the U.S. Army -- said an emotional good-bye Friday to a man they both could claim as their own.

They were paying their final tributes to Dill, the Army Reserves staff sergeant and Buffalo firefighter who was killed in combat in Iraq on April 4.

"You talk about a mutual-aid (response)," the Rev. Joseph Bayne, Buffalo Fire Department Catholic chaplain, observed in looking out at a sea of mourners dominated by dark blue and Army green uniforms inside the Town of Tonawanda church.

This was a day when firefighters and soldiers served as concelebrants of Dill's life. An estimated 700 to 800 firefighters, including some from Boston, New York City and all over New York State, joined roughly 200 soldiers in the massive show of respect.

"You seldom see the blue and green lines come together at a funeral," Capt. Joseph E. Foley, president of the Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association, marveled, before the graveside service in Mount Olivet Cemetery. "It's been a very powerful image, to see the two groups join to pay our respects to a hero."

Mourners were bombarded with images of Dill's two professional worlds.

At every turn, firefighters and soldiers shared the spotlight. There were four pallbearers from each group. U.S. Army and Buffalo Fire Department officials both presented American flags to Dill's wife, Dawn, and his mother, Marsha. And the printed program for the Mass of Christian Burial included both "A Firefighter's Prayer" and "The Soldier's Creed."

Each group also provided its special traditions. Mourners driving from the church to the cemetery passed under as many as three different arches formed by two ladder trucks, with an American flag suspended from the top of each arch. And the Army played Taps in the cemetery, presented Dill's military honors and medals to his wife, and fired a 21-gun salute into the cloudless sky.

"Chris was proud to be an American," Bayne said in his homily. "He was called, he went, and he served (in the Army), just like he did when he got up in the middle of the night at Jefferson and Kingsley (to fight fires). He did it so that others could live. That made us proud to be his comrade and friend."

Bayne called Dill "a gentleman, a soldier, a firefighter who wore many uniforms." In death and in life, he added, the firefighter-soldier taught many lessons.

Referring to the huge fire, police and military response, Bayne wondered why people come together so easily at a time of tragedy, but not so easily at other times. In death, he said, Dill is teaching a lesson about the importance of community.

Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, in his eulogy, called Dill "an authentic, genuine hero," who died as a warrior.

"Honor was never off-duty for Chris Dill," he added. "He lived as a hero and died as a hero."

The procession lso was marked by a huge presence of police vehicles, reflecting the Dill family's intimate connection to local law enforcement. Chris Dill once worked as a Buffalo police cell-block attendant. His uncle, Daniel, is a retired Buffalo police detective. His mother, Marsha, is a corrections lieutenant in the Erie County Sheriff's Department. And his father, William, is a retired Buffalo fire lieutenant.

The committal service at Mount Olivet was peaceful and serene, with relatively few words. The 21-gun salute, Taps and the reading of Dill's military awards broke the silence, as mourners heard only the wind whipping through the sound system during many of the military rites.

Dill's ashes will be entombed later in the cemetery.

While Dill's family members kept their thoughts to themselves during the services, they no doubt were comforted by something that Chris Dill's younger sister, Merrilee, told them after his death:

"I'm not afraid of dying anymore, because I know he's there waiting for us."

Friday's service was an impressive one to onlookers, especially with the more than four dozen vehicles in the funeral procession and all the military and fire department touches.

"What a great tribute," one family friend said to another outside the church.

"What a great kid," the other replied.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com