’25 stars too many’

Published 9:50 pm Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Many visitors came to the Price family home on Brians Lane this past December. Firefighters, police officers and neighbors alike came to see their 6-foot-tall, stark-white Christmas tree. Each one was there to pay their respects to those that we lost in 2018.

The Fallen Heroes Tree had hundreds of red and blue stars hanging next to bright lights. Bill Price and his family wrote the names of firefighters, police officers and others that served on each star. Written in black were their departments and the days they lost their lives.

On the evening of Dec. 12, a few dozen first responders gathered at the tree, along with friends and neighbors. The Newport News Fire Department played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes for the tribute.

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Norfolk and Portsmouth police officers read the names of fallen police officers that hung on the tree. The Suffolk Department of Fire & Rescue read the names of the firefighters. Suffolk sheriff’s deputies also stood in the crowd.

“It was really nice to hear all those names and to remember all of those people,” said Price, who that evening read the names of the first responders who died in 2018 from illnesses resulting from their service following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Since first putting up the tree on Nov. 25, Bill and Cindy Price have stayed alert on their “2018 Fallen Heroes Tree” Facebook page, the Officer Down Memorial Page and other online resources nightly. The couple was determined to make sure every first responder — including K-9 Unit dogs — was honored with his or her own star.

More than 250 police officers, firefighters and K-9 Unit dogs were displayed on the tree this year. The stars were blue for police, red for firefighters and blue again for the dogs, but with paw prints on them. That doesn’t include more than 190 men and women who died from illnesses they developed because of exposure at the World Trade Center.

Price is a captain in the fire department at Naval Station Norfolk with more than three decades of firefighting experience. It’s important to him that the responsibility of remembering these first responders is passed on to his sons, Keegan, 9, and Gavin, 7.

That included picking up every star that fell during December’s cold wind and rain.

“My two boys were hawks on that tree,” Price said. “If they saw one star on the ground, they got their boots on and ran out to hang them right back up again.”

Price took down the tree on Tuesday. He said that since Nov. 30, six firefighters, 10 police officers and two dogs had died and were added to the tree. Three firefighters and four police officers died from 9/11-related illnesses. The last one passed on New Year’s Eve.

“That’s 25 stars too many for the month of December,” he said.

He and his wife had prepared extra stars in case more names needed to be added, and there were only a few left when January arrived.

“It’s kind of eerie to see blank stars sitting there, (while you’re) hoping that you’re not going to put names on them,” he said.

Price plans to retire this year and move his family to Roanoke. But the tree is still expected to shine next holiday season, no matter where the Price family finds itself.

“If we’re here, then we’re absolutely going to be doing it again next year,” Price said.