PORTLAND – Mary Lou Eaton and her two sisters sat in the front row Friday, facing the west lawn at the Portland Fire Department’s Central Station, where the Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial will be erected.

Central Station was where their father worked early in his career, before moving to Engine Co. 8 at Woodfords Corner.

On Feb. 25, 1945, Thomas L. Walsh was crushed when an explosion toppled a brick wall as he fought a three-alarm fire at the Stevens Avenue Armory. He left behind two young daughters and a wife who was seven months pregnant.

The black granite memorial that will be installed this winter will bear Walsh’s name and those of 19 other Portland firefighters who have died in the line of duty since 1903.

“Our father’s name being included on there, it’s very important to us,” said Eaton, an Eliot resident, sitting with her sisters, Jane Nicholas of Cape Elizabeth and Thomasina Cole of Wells, who was born two months after her father’s death.

Their mother would have wept at Friday’s ceremony, they said, a recognition of a noble sacrifice and a family tragedy.

Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony drew more than 100 people, including family members, city officials, public safety personnel and business leaders. Nearby, a large American flag fluttered, suspended by two fire engine ladders that were extended to form an arch.

“This is both a day of excitement and of solemn feelings,” said Deputy Fire Chief David Jackson, chairman of the committee that helped make the memorial a reality.

Jackson said the location for the memorial is appropriate, given its history. Four fire houses have stood on that block, including a former schoolhouse that held a hand pumper. The building was destroyed in Portland’s Great Fire of 1866.

The memorial has been on the drawing board for more than a decade. It became a reality when a group of businesses stepped forward to fund most of the $30,000 project.

The donors included Unum, Quirk Chevrolet, MaineToday Media, Northeast Delta Dental, T.A. Napolitano Electric, MEMIC, Wright Express, the Maine Red Claws, Maine Medical Center, Mercy Hospital and the Maine Memorial Co.

Several of the business owners and their representatives joined city officials Friday in wielding gold-painted shovels, ceremoniously turning spadefuls of earth where the monument will stand.

The names on the memorial encompass the history of the fire department, including men who fought fires with hand-powered pumps drawn by teams of horses, and who climbed into upper stories with wooden ladders laid against buildings.

“The risk to the men and women who serve our residents has not changed,” said Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne.

He noted that today’s fire and rescue workers, while equipped with the latest technology, also are exposed to a multitude of hazards: carcinogens, communicable diseases and toxins. “Their dedication to their task has not wavered.”

LaMontagne said it was a fitting time for the groundbreaking, as residents’ thoughts turn to the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

A tree planted on the west lawn in memory of the firefighters who died in the World Trade Center will be incorporated into the memorial.

LaMontagne said the memorial will provide an opportunity to connect with people in the community who have suffered losses of life or property, something that affects firefighters deeply.

“In our stations, to our peers, with our family and friends, we share in each of your losses,” he said. “We offer this monument to you to share in our loss.”

Robert Steele of Long Island said he had been looking forward to the groundbreaking since he saw a drawing of the memorial two years ago at the annual firefighter memorial service, held with the South Portland Fire Department.

Steele’s great-grandfather, Deputy Chief William H. Steele, was 46 when he was killed in 1913 by nitric acid fumes while responding to what today would be called a hazardous materials spill.

Robert Steele, who was town manager in Scarborough before working for cities in New Hampshire, comes from a long line of public safety personnel. His grandfather was a Portland firefighter and his father was a Portland police chief.

“I think it’s great,” Steele said of the memorial. “I think it has a lot of significance.”

The department plans a dedication ceremony in the spring, once the monument is in place.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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