Chapter Eight: The parade
The Secaucus fire Department made a real show of honoring Koenemund a few weeks after he died in the Labor Day fire in Passaic. Over 100 fire fighters from across the state made their way to town for the furneral, and local department supplied a honor guard of men flags and silvered tipped fire axes, marching before the coffee bearing the name "Bo" upon it.
Bo's son, William, Jr. was there in uniform as well. The members of the Washington Hook & Ladder company to which Bo had belonged acted as pall bearers, although a contingent of Passaic firefighters were also on hand -- thought uniforms from West New York, Lodi, Union City, Westwood, New Milford, Guttenberg, Fort Leee, Buttenberg, Lincoln Park, Denville, Rochellie Park, Little Falls, Totowa, and even, Bost Massachusetts, could be found in the marchers.
But perhaps the most induring tribute was the least well-known, that that became part of the unspoken ritual of the Secaucus fire department many years later. In fact, on every other year since the great Dundee Island fire of Passaic in 1985, Raymond Cieciuch, who served as captain of the Washington Hook and Ladder and later rose to chief of the fire department made sure there was one special trophy set aside in memory of Koenemund during the every-two-year Fire Chief's Inspection Parade.
The Fire Chief's Inspection Parade, held every year since 1899, were a way firefighters had of honoring their own, a ritual so set in stone that some questioned why Chief George Heflich postponed one earlier in 1985. Heflich, who later came under fire for other decissions he made that year, argued that a new state fire code inposed that year as a result of another deadly fire at Great Adventure, required the department to inspect every commerical property and business in the town, including any tavern that could hold more than 50 people.
The effect was the change a tradition that allowed the incoming chief to review the fleet to one of paying tribute to a chief just leaving office.
Cieciuch, a tall, thin serious-looking man, had a reputation for soberness that disturbed some men in the department. He didn't party the way many of the other fire fighters did, and years later, would find his election to fire chief opposed by a hard core group of drinking firemen who feared he would turn off the beer tap in the firehouses around town.
The Parade, which drew out the best and worst intentions in the party, was always an excuse for Cieciuch to pay tribute to Bo and the other more noble traditions he found in the Secaucus fire department.
He was hardly alone. Other sober gentlemen of the fire department also saw the parade as something great, a moment the public got to see the firemen spiffed up, and in non-critical situations. It was a time to honor the living as well as the dead.
"I've been doing the parade for 22 years," said Councilman John Reilly, an ex-captain for Engine Company #3 and Council Liaison to the fire department told me some years later.
Reilly, who had served as chairman of the parade committee several times over the years, tried to explain to me the significance of the ritual, how big a part of the community the every two-year parade had become.
"It used to be something that we did to honor the chief after his term expired, but now it is something that honors the whole fire department -- though the chief is still in the lime light," he said.
A new chief takes over every two years in Secaucus. He learns the ropes over a four year process. On the January following the Fall parade, the new chief takes over -- a person who had served for two years as second assistant chief, then two years as first assistant chief. Just before the transition takes place, a new second assistant chief is elected, part of a rotation among the town's five fire houses that allows each firehouse to eventually have one of its members serve as chief.
The swearing-in ceremony for the new chief's is nearly as sacred at the parade, and just as filled with odd moments, such as the time in 1971 when fire fighters had to rush out of the hall in Immaculate Conception Church to put out a fire at Paul's Diner on Route 3 East. Paul's Diner was catering the affair, and men had to run as far to get to their fire engines as to the fire itself.
Yet the parade is the most visible of ceremonies, one in which the whole town takes part, and one that celebrates the accomplishment of the chief as well as the department.
"The parade pays tribute to them all as well as chief," Reilly said. "It is a chance for residents to come out and honor those who help protect them all year round."
Part of the attraction for other fire companies is the selection of trophy winners.
At times as many as 50 fire companies from throughout the state show up, dragging with them more than 300 pieces of fire fighting equipment. Some come to celebrate. Some come to show off their newest rigs. Still others come to win trophies, which are awared at the end of the parade in various categories from oldest unit to the best.
"We have an independent judging association scoring the parade participants and then we award them trophies," said Reilly. "But the reason we're so popular is the hospitality the town puts forth."
"Ninety percent of those who come are volunteer," said Robert Cordes, one of the men who served as chief over the years,"though many of the paid departments also send representatives."
In some years, the parade committee has given away as much as $4,000 worth of trophies -- paid for by private donations from people who want to honor someone or remember someone who had served.
"A lot of people dedicated a trophy to someone who is diseased," said Cordes, as Cieciuch did for William "Bo" Koenemund.
"Were we close?" Cieciuch says, answering the question with a snort and a shrug, and then something of a distant sad look in his eyes as he turns away, and then mumbles with utter seriousness, "Yeah, we were close."
More than a decade after Bo's death, his son William came back to Secaucus as part of an effort to help preserve his father's memory. William, Jr. was even on hand to dedicate one of the new fire trucks honoring not only his father, but the company is father had served for 39 years.
Members of the Washington Hook & Ladder company like to boast that they existed before the town of Secaucus did. Their unit started when locals purchaced a hand-drawn hook and ladder fire appratus from the Washington Street Fire house near 14th Street in Hoboken in 1891 The unit stored in a barn on Secaucus Road providing fire protection to the North Bergen area, it was relocated to County Avenue when the barn burned down.
Secaucus was part of North Bergen then, and Washington Hook & Ladder, under firechief George Bergkamp, was the only fire company in the area. When the town broke away from North Bergen to set up its own municipal government, the Washington Hook and Ladder came with it.
That early company battled fired in the soap and grease plants, as well as on the various farms -- that area of Secaucus known for its pig farms, while other sections were filled with green houses. Since water delivery systems were still primative, numerous buildings went up in flames despite vallent efforts by firefighters.
Washington Hook & Ladder remained the town's only company for about three years, when demand for additional protection produced a second, and later a third fire house, so that by the town began to emerge from its life as a farming community and began to take on the role of a warehouse and outlet center, it had five firehouses in all -- although Washington Hook & Ladder continuted to boast of its being first.
Firefighters brag of their tradition, especially at times when they gather to celebrate the commissioning of a new vehicle to their fleet.
"The members of this firehouse are very close," said Ciecuich, noting the intense loyalty they have for their firehouse and its traditions even after they move elsewhere, and how they treat every fire as if lives depended on them.
Although Bo's son eventually became a firefighter in Lodi, he couldn't forget his service to Secaucus, as a firefighter or his position as ex‑captain. When his old company needed help in searching out a new secondary vehicle for the South End firehouse, Koenemund came back to co-chair with Ciecuich the search committee, back to the company for which his father had served and died.