Firefighters memorial

Gabriel Rodriguez, 3, foreground, holding the hand of his father, Chicago firefighter Mauricio Rodriguez, joins a parade of Chicago firefighters arriving today at a mass for deceased fire department personnel at Holy Family Church on the South Side. (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune / May 30, 2011)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined city firefighters this morning for a Memorial Day mass that marked an especially deadly year for the department.

When Christopher Wheatley was killed after falling three stories from a fire escape as he battled a blaze at a West Loop restaurant in August, it marked the first time a Chicago firefighter had been killed on the job in nearly a decade, spokesman Larry Langford said today. Three more firefighters would die in the line of duty in the next 12 months, the worst tally for the department in decades, Langford said.

Monday, several hundred uniformed firefighters and family members walked past a fire engine that had been dedicated to Wheatley as they entered Holy Family Church for a service honoring Wheatley and fellow firefighters Patrick Hannon, Edward Stringer and Corey Ankum, as well as more than 100 retirees who died of natural causes.

"It's been a very tough year on the firefighters and paramedics and their families," said Fire Commissioner Bob Hoff, whose brother, retired firefighter Ray Hoff, also died this year.

"Things like these happen, and it just pulls us closer together and reminds us how dangerous this job is."

Leaving the cathedral with a memorial candle that had been blessed by department Chaplain Fr. Tom Mulcrone, EMT Michelle Hannon said it was the first time she had attended the ceremony without her husband, Patrick, who died of natural causes in January while on shift at his South Side fire house.

"This really means a lot to the families," said Michelle Hannon. "The whole city knows the job we do, and that we do it without hesitation."

Hannon's death came less than a month after rookie firefighter Corey Ankum and 12-year veteran Edward Stringer were killed when the roof of a burned out West Side commercial building collapsed on them as they searched the wreckage.

Emanuel's brief remarks were met with applause from the several hundred firefighters, retirees and family members. Emanuel was the first mayor to attend the annual ceremony in at least 30 years, Hoff said.

"To the many family members here there are no words to express the debt we owe our fallen heroes and no words to express our sorrow at your loss," the mayor said.

agrimm@tribune.com