The FDNY Emerald Society Pipes & Drums

Piping Today
December 2012.

FDNY (Fire Department of New York) firefighters work 24-hour shifts in rotating rosters. They cover 322 square miles from more than 200 firehouses with in excess of 10,000 uniformed firefighters. The FDNY attend over 480,000 emergency incidents annually, of which 25,000 are structure fires — and they have the largest and proudest fire service pipe band in the world.

Long before I even started this article, I had thought a lot about the FDNY Pipes and Drums. My fascination with both firefighting and piping came at an early age. Most young boys dream of being a fireman and I was no different. Most grow out of it, some don’t.  Some, like me, just take a while to get there.

When I saw the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre on fire from a TV screen half a world away, I had just completed the final assignment of my photographic career, ironically it was for American Express, located in 7 World Trade Centre. I was soon to begin my new career as a firefighter and I watched in awe as engines from FDNY streamed towards the World Trade Centre, trying to rescue those trapped, in what was about to become the toughest, most tragic day in their history.

What happened that day, the sacrifices made, the stories that came from 9/11 and after are now part of our collective consciousness. FDNY have become legend and a part of that legend is woven into the fabric of the band.

In the months afterwards, my most vivid memories were of the FDNY Pipes and Drums, playing at funeral after funeral for their fallen brothers. This role, one that their members hold as the greatest privilege, was never more important than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

They piped their brothers to rest — all 343 of them.

The FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums had a humble beginning. A few Irish-American firefighters, none of whom could play the pipes or drums, got together to form a social society, much like émigrés do the world over. Most of the original dozen or so members were good Irish-American boys looking for a way to reconnect with their heritage through music. They are proud of their heritage, their country and their fellow firefighters. More than 100-strong, in both parade and competition bands, the FDNY pipers and drummers are all professional firefighters. They receive no personal compensation for playing more than 200 engagements a year.

•FDNY in the New York St Patrick’s Day parade in 1963.

In 2012 the FDNY Pipes and Drums are both celebrating and reflecting upon 50 years of joy, sorrow and achievement and Lieutenant Tim Geraghty, FDNY firefighter and piper, is making a documentary of it. Theirs is a story of brotherhood, history and honouring those who have sacrificed their lives for others, including 343 firefighters who lost their lives on that perfect blue September morning in 2001. Through Triumph and Tragedy: 50 Years of the FDNY Pipes and Drums is their story, and it is a story every piper and drummer should hear.

Tim’s documentary also came from humble beginnings. Asked to produce a five-minute show for the band’s 50th anniversary dinner dance, Tim knew this project could be so much more. More than just the reminiscences and snapshot portrayals of five decades of bandsmen, St Patrick’s Day parades and the sadness of line-of-duty deaths, he set about drumming up support for a feature-length documentary.

Tim’s own story is as emblematic of Irish-American firefighting families as you’ll find and it almost reads like a TV screenplay. Before Tim became a member of what is universally known as ‘New York’s Bravest’, he was a TV producer and with this background, he is perfectly placed to tell the story — his band’s story. As much as the documentary relates the band’s history, it speaks just as truly of how traditions in piping grow, as they grow in firefighting.

While awaiting his acceptance into FDNY as a rookie firefighter, he completed his education in TV production, but the burning desire to join FDNY was always there. Tim is clear about his motivations: “When people ask me how I became a firefighter, I always say, ‘I didn’t want to join the Fire Department, I wanted to join the pipe band.’ 

“My father was a firefighter but he didn’t talk much about the job — all I knew was the pipe band. He was a bagpiper and every weekend the family would go out to a parade or party and I would be surrounded by these men who were not only firefighters but played in the band. It was awesome!

“I joined the Fire Department in 1998 and it took me almost 10 years before I became a member of the FDNY Pipes and Drums. I picked up and put down the bagpipes over many years, starting when I was about 13. I didn’t really take them seriously until after 9/11 and I saw what the band did for the 343 members who died that day. They played every funeral and memorial service for the members we lost on 9/11.”

Being a firefighter may have had something to do with Tim’s delay in auditioning for the band. Riding the “Big Red Truck” gets under your skin, it becomes part of you. The adrenaline, the camaraderie and the sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself is common to most fire services the world over. Even more so when you are at a busy firehouse and the jobs are running, and Tim’s firehouse was a busy one. Tim’s first station was Engine 50 / Ladder 19, a mile east of Yankee Stadium. One of the busier firehouses, off duty often means sleep, and that can certainly cut into your practice time. When Tim won a promotion to Lieutenant, he finally decided the time was right to take the bagpipes seriously.

He had followed his father into the fire department; now was the time to follow him into the band. But first he had to get through the audition.

Said Tim: “The audition process for the band is a bit like American Idol. I had to march and play a selection of 20 tunes for five of the senior members of the band. It was one of the proudest days for me, to pass that audition and play in the band with my dad. I had the privilege of both working a fire with my dad as well as marching with him in the band.

Talking about the photo below, he said: “I was working on Engine 26, and dad was on Ladder 26 when that picture was taken. On his last tour of duty we pulled a few strings. I was transferred for the night to work with him — he was my officer and I was his firefighter, his can-man (junior man on the platoon).”

•Tim Geraghty with his father, Captain Ed Geraghty, on Ed’s last tour of duty.

Captain Ed Geraghty, Tim’s father, retired from the FDNY just before 9/11. Still active in the band, his influence on Tim both professionally and musically is obvious. The sense of tradition, the rites of passage (in both pipe band and fire service) have been passed down from father to son. The love of brotherhood and the understanding of sacrifice are embodied in this relationship. Father and son, firefighter and piper.

The band started in 1962, mainly formed from firefighters from the South Bronx area. One year later, they were playing in the St Patrick’s Day parade to the cheers of the crowd.It would not be until a tragic fire in 1980 that their true mission as a band would be revealed.

Tim picks up the story: “It was June 27, 1980, and the FDNY responded to a fire in Upper Manhattan. Firefighter Gerald Frisby, working in Ladder 28, was trapped by fire on the top floor of the building. Firefighter Larry Fitzpatrick from Rescue Company 3 was lowered down the side of the building on a rope in order to rescue him. When Frisby got on to the rope to be lowered down, it snapped and both men plunged to their deaths. 

“This was the first time the band would play a funeral for a firefighter killed in the line of duty. From that moment forward the band’s mission was clear. To honour, remember and celebrate the members of the Fire Department’ has become the message of the band ever since. Every funeral would be covered, everyone would be looked after.’

9/11 changed the world. It also changed the FDNY. Firefighters to whom the job meant everything said that after 9/11, they never recaptured the love they had for it. Others just kept on going. The pipe band guys were just as affected. 

“Bronko” Pearsall, a stalwart drummer with a love of the band that was legendary, was famous for saying, “Without the kilt, I’d just be another fat guy at the bar.” The band would play at his funeral. Durrell V. Pearsall Jr, “Bronko”, a member of Rescue 4 and FDNY drummer, died in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Father Mychal Judge was a larger than life figure for FDNY and the band. He was completely supportive of FDNY firefighters and the role the band played in both the high and low times. Father Mychal was one of the victims of the first tower collapse, killed by debris as he was administering last rights to a victim of the attack. He understood the importance of the band to the firefighters and to the families, especially in the event of a line-of-duty death.

So did Rudy Guiliani, Mayor of New York during that intense period of disaster and of recovery. 

He puts it succinctly in Tim’s documentary: “Firefighters are our heroes. The bagpipe is a symbol, an evocation of heroism. It is both a very beautiful instrument and a sad instrument — a lot of what the life of a firefighter is like. I could never have been prouder of the band than when they played at the funerals of their friends, of people they loved. The world got to see what we all knew.”

Tim’s reverence for his fallen brothers and the band who honoured them is clear: “Playing all those funerals has definitely affected each member of the band in a profound way. The loss for the department was so enormous. I still think that members cannot fully comprehend it. It’s still with us every day and any time we put on the kilt, we are reminded of the supreme sacrifice that firefighters make in order to protect the public.”

I asked Tim whether he thought the band could have survived the 9/11 funerals without the strength of history and the fellowship of the band.

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “Before 9/11, at the end of a funeral of a brother fallen in the line of duty, the band would always play an uplifting tune. For the firefighters of FDNY, this was often the most emotional part of the service. It symbolised the future, knowing that whatever we as brothers had to endure, we would go on. The spirit of the brotherhood would go on.”

The band didn’t follow that tradition during almost two years of funerals and memorials, however, as the last notes of the last funeral of the 343 firefighters echoed in the distance, the traditional end to the FDNY funeral was resurrected. 

•343 flags for the men who died on 9/11.

On that occasion, the band, almost as one, struck up and played Garry Owen and Atholl Highlanders. These two tunes that had always marked the end to a funeral service now marked the start of a new day for the Pipes and Drums of FDNY. Firefighters who had been through so much over almost two years — men who had not allowed a tear to fall in that time — broke down and cried. The symbolism of the last funeral of the 343 firefighters showed how much the Pipes and Drums of FDNY are a part of the whole.

Tim believes that the Chief of the Department, Edward Kilduff, put it best when he said:  “The FDNY Pipes and Drums are not only considered a part of the Fire Department, they are the beating heart.”

You’d have to have a hard heart to disagree.

Hurricane Sandy hit the FDNY firefighters and members of the band hard. Many of their homes and neighbourhoods were devastated by the tidal surge and storm damage. 

At the time of writing in 2012, Tim and his brothers and sisters in FDNY were working round the clock. Band performances were cancelled as members of FDNY responded with other emergency services, both when on and off-duty, to get New York on the road to recovery.