They stood, thousands of white-gloved hands snapping salutes under row upon row of stiff-brimmed hats, in front of a church as their brother was carried past.
Others huddled their children close along nearby streets, trying to protect them from bone-chilling wind as they waited in quiet for a hero they had never met.
About 3,700 mourners — including 2,000 uniformed firefighters — packed the inside of Princeton Pike Church of God on Thursday for a public memorial service honoring Patrick Wolterman, and thousands more lined a 23-mile procession route to pay their respects.
Wolterman, 28, entered a house fire Monday in the 1300 block of Pater Avenue after learning an elderly couple was possibly trapped inside. He died attempting to save lives.
He was “willing to run into danger,” said Fr. George Jacquemin, who presided over the memorial service.
“He didn’t even know who might be in the house, but he went in because he cared so much,” Jacquemin said.
“Firefighters, as you well know, the tragedy that happened to Patrick could happen at anytime to anyone,” he said, addressing the thousands of firefighters who packed the church.
Wolterman “lived the last hours and the last minutes of his life protecting and serving the citizens of Hamilton,” Mayor Pat Moeller said.
“For his service, Hamilton citizens are eternally grateful,” he said
Wolterman’s death marked the fire department’s first death in the line of duty since 1971.
Speaking to Wolterman's wife, Bre, and family, Hamilton Fire Chief Steve Dawson said, "I trust that you are proud of Patrick and all that he has accomplished in his far too short life. He provided valuable service to his fellow man and that is a wonderful attribute."
Dawson personally interviewed and hired Wolterman.
“During the hiring interview process, Patrick told me that his dream was to be a Hamilton firefighter,” Dawson said.
Dawson described Wolterman as "a young man with intelligence, character and strong personal conviction" who quickly fit in at the Hamilton Fire Department.
“He performed admirable and was well on his way to becoming an outstanding servant to the citizens of Hamilton,” he said. “He became part of our family.”
Wolterman’s badge number – 89 – will be retired, “never again to be used by the Hamilton Fire Department,” Dawson said. “It is just one small measure to commemorate the sacrifice that he made for this fire department and this city.”
Wolterman was also posthumously honored with the department’s Meritorious Service Award. It is the highest honor of the Hamilton Fire Department, Dawson said. He knelt on one knee and presented the medal to Wolterman’s wife.
With heavy emotion and choking back tears, Hamilton Fire Union Local 20 President Brian Ruhl regaled mourners with multiple stories about Wolterman that produced laughter and some tears.
Ruhl recalled meeting the young firefighter and his wife during a union picnic this past summer.
“Patrick found his soulmate and a special bond in someone else who was making a career in service to the community,” he said, referring to Bre’s job as a teacher.
At the picnic, Wolterman and Ruhl discussed some of their favorite drinks.
“We joked he liked a wide variety of drinks….. from Ferrari’s to Pintos. He joked as he talked about high-end bourbons and Busch Light,” Ruhl said.
Because Wolterman loved bourbon, Ruhl raised an empty glass in a symbolic toast to the fallen firefighter.
“To the glass we never got the opportunity to share,” he toasted.
Ruhl also had special words for Wolterman’s wife.
“You are a strong young woman whose inner strength shines through. There is no doubt that Patrick’s loss will leave a void. It cannot be filled, but we will work together, to get both of us to a better place. You have my promise,” he said.
Wolterman’s casket made its way to Spring Grove Cemetery on a Hamilton fire engine draped in black and purple bunting with the firefighter’s gear positioned on the front. Dozens of area fire and police vehicles were a part of the procession that passed by Fire Station 25 on N. Erie Boulevard, where Wolterman was stationed.
Hundreds lined the streets along the procession route — many placing their hands over their hearts, removing their hats and whispering prayers for the city’s latest hero.
Orville Griffin, of New Miami, is a former St. Clair Twp. volunteer firefighter. He stood in the cold Thursday morning along N. Erie Boulevard, waiting to pay his respects to the fallen Hamilton firefighter.
“We’re a solid brotherhood of firefighters,” he said. “We lean on each other in times like this.”
Griffin also brought his children to pay their respects.
“I brought my children so they could understand more about what’s going on and understand that it’s not just our military that’s our heroes but also our local police and firefighters,” he said.
Hamilton resident Cassandra Pablo lives near where the fatal fire took place.
She stood along the procession route “to show my respect for the firefighters and the job they do. To let them know the community does stand behind them when something like this happens.”
Pablo’s children were also with her Thursday.
“There are dangerous jobs out there,” she said she told her children. “It personally affects the community (my children) are going to grow up in.”
Firefighters from six area departments helped to staff Hamilton fire stations Thursday so Wolterman’s colleagues could attend his memorial service and burial.
Men and women from Cincinnati, Hanover Twp., Ross Twp., Liberty Twp., Fairfield Twp. and Monroe fire departments aided the department, according to Dawson.
Some Hamilton fire personnel, such as apparatus drivers, remained on duty during the memorial service because of their knowledge of the streets and areas around the city that others do not have, Dawson previously told the Journal-News.
Cincinnati Fire Department District Chief Mike Zimmerman was at Hamilton Fire Headquarters early Thursday with 26 firefighters and several vehicles, including a ladder truck.
In March, Cincinnati firefighters suffered a loss when firefighter Daryl Gordon was killed in the line of duty after falling into an elevator shaft.
“They were there to assist us at our time of need and obviously it is time for us to assist in their time of need,” Zimmerman said, noting firefighting is a brotherhood.
Staff Writers Lauren Pack and Michael D. Clark contributed to this report.
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