By Ray O’Hanlon
It will not be an easy walk for some and it could get very crowded along the avenue.
But the 241st consecutive New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, grand marshal Cardinal Edward Egan to the fore, is set for the off this Saturday morning, March 16, at 11, rain or shine.
The parade is being dedicated to the heroes of Sept. 11 and this factor alone could bolster the numbers of marchers and spectators to record levels.
But for firefighters, police, both New York City and Port Authority, and other emergency service marchers, it will not be so much of a case of how many are marching, but how many are missing.
“This is going to be a very solemn occasion for us. There will not be so much hoopla in our ranks. We really don’t know that to expect,” Bill Whelan, president of the Fire Department Emerald Society, said.
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“It will be a strange parade. It could also turn into a great gathering because there could be thousands, as many as 10,000-15,000 by some estimates, of extra firemen coming from around the country and abroad. We’re trying to form a plan to accommodate them.”
He said that the FDNY had sent out work through the International Firefighters Association that large numbers of visiting firefighters won’t be able to march in the parade simply because of a lack of room.
Whelan said that while there might be more firefighters on and around Fifth Avenue, New York firefighters will be more conscious of the fact that 343 firefighters lost at the World Trade Center would not be marching in the long blue line.
He said there was a plan to honor the fallen firefighters by means of a special marching unit of 343 probationary firefighters, each one representing a fallen comrade.
The Emerald Society was hoping, meanwhile, that many of the visiting firefighters could be used to form an honor guard along a section of the parade route.
“It’s great for the city that they are coming, but I hope they don’t get upset. We’re not ready, we’re not quite there yet. It’s going to be hard,” Whelan said.
The pivotal moment in the parade, and certainly the most heart-rending, will be the period of silence at 12:30 p.m., 90 minutes into the march.
Cardinal Egan will lead the silent tribute from the avenue at a point alongside the main reviewing stand at 64th Street.
Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese will be in the stand at that moment and Cardinal Egan will be joined on the avenue by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen, and former police commission Bernard Kerik. The three will be leading a special heroes contingent consisting of NYPD officers, firefighters, Port Authority police officers, paramedics and construction industry workers who took part in the post-9/11 rescue and recovery effort.
All marchers and spectators will be asked to turn and face south toward Lower Manhattan for the minute, or more likely two, of silent prayer.
“We are hoping that everyone in the city will turn and face south too at that moment,” said parade executive secretary Jim Barker.
Barker said that parade workers and line-of-march officials along the parade route would be coordinating the minute’s silence, much as they did a few years ago when the parade stopped to honor the dead of the Great Hunger in Ireland.
Each marching unit would also be issued with a leaflet reminding them of the 12:30 stoppage.
As for the expected influx of firefighters, Barker said that some would likely end up marching with smaller marching units while others could watch the parade from the sidelines.
But the priority for parade organizers, he said, were the 186 parade-affiliated marching organizations.
“We want to be helpful to everybody, but we can’t be foolish,” Barker said.
Meanwhile, while parade watchers are cheering on the cops and firefighters, members of the famous Fighting 69th regiment will be deserving of a special cheer too.
That’s the message coming through loud and clear this week from the famed regiment’s Midtown armory.
The regiment was all set to mark 150 years in service to the United States last October. But the Sept. 11 attack on America put paid to the plans for anniversary celebrations, not least because the regiment was called up to active duty and has been helping to bolster the nation’s security in the six months since.
“Right now the regiment is on duty all over the place, but it will be coming together to take its traditional place at the head of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade,” Ken Powers, a retired lieutenant colonel and the regiment’s historian, said.
Soldiers from the 69th are indeed all over the place. Two hundred of them are guarding West Point Military Academy, 300 more are at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, and 15 are in the appropriately named town of Letterkenny, though, in this case, the Pennsylvania version.
Powers said that the regiment’s march up Fifth Avenue would engender mixed feelings in the ranks.
“There will be sadness and celebration,” he said.
The sadness will not just be due to the huge losses suffered by the regiment’s home town on Sept. 11, but because of a very specific loss: that of Lt. Gerard Batiste, a regiment member and firefighter who lost his life at the twin towers.
That said, the regiment will be a defiant presence on Fifth Avenue, a khaki-clad symbol of American resolve
And when “Garryowen” strikes up, it will serve as a reminder to the world that since Sept. 11, America in its totality has embraced the fighting 69th’s battle-tested motto: “Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.”