In a somber ceremony, the Orange County Fire Authority on Saturday officially unveiled a memorial to county firefighters at its new headquarters.
The morning's event began with about 100 firefighters and family members of fallen firefighters marching from a nearby fire station to the authority's new operations center in Irvine. Bagpipers and drummers, a color guard and a horse-drawn fire engine were part of the procession.
The march marked the final leg of a 300-mile, six-week relay in which runners carried a torch to 60 fire stations throughout the 23 cities and unincorporated areas protected by the authority.
At the culmination of the dedication, the torch ignited an eternal flame that is part of a statue at the entrance to the 22-acre administration and training facility.
The 11-foot bronze sculpture depicts two firefighters rescuing a child and an older fireman on his knee talking to a boy. It was made by De L'Esprie, whose clients include the Museum of the American West and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The memorial eventually will include an engraved list of the names of 17 fallen Orange County firefighters.
"What this memorial cannot do is bring back these loved ones or prevent similar tragedies," Joe Kerr, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn., said at the ceremony. "But what it can do is offer a moving tribute to those who did not shrink from their duties in the face of danger."
The memorial was not completed without controversy. Struggling to raise $750,000, project directors received two loans for $175,000 from fire authority funds early this year.
The use of public money to pay for the statue riled some officials, including County Supervisor Chris Norby, who also is a member of the authority's board of directors. The move was particularly ill-timed, coming as authority officials were campaigning for a larger share of state public safety funds.
"Statues and memorials by definition are an outpouring of the public sentiment. They're not something the government pays for," Norby said in February.
Susan Ritschel, mayor of San Clemente and president of the private, nonprofit group formed to oversee the memorial project, said that with more than $600,000 raised so far, fundraising would continue until the project is paid for. The memorial fund is continuing to repay the loans, she said.
Family members of fallen firefighters said the money was well spent.
"It's beautiful," said Cara Donelan-Wilson, whose husband died six years ago. "Not only does it help us remember the sacrifices our families have gone through, but also the sacrifices that firefighters are continuing to make every day."