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Firefighters from all over the country converge on Peabody

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Hundreds of firefighters from Massachusetts and elsewhere to pay their respects today to Peabody firefighter James M. Rice. In Peabody Square, Alex White, 8 and his friend Paige Biscaia, 6 both from Salem were allowed to stand in front of firefighters as they all saluted Rice’s passing casket.

PEABODY _ They came from everywhere. Haverhill and New York City. Salem and Baltimore. Even Calgary, Alberta, some 2,500 miles away.

More than 1,000 firefighters in their dress uniforms with buttons, badges, and shoes polished for the day. It is a day that they have repeated many times.

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“I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else today,” said Lieutenant Michael Ballou, 57, a 37-year-veteran of the Milford Fire Department. Decked out in traditional Celtic garb, Ballou is a drummer for the Worcester Fire Brigade Pipes and Drums.

Shortly before 10 a.m., conversations among those standing in front of St. John the Baptist Church, which was borrowed for the Greek Orthodox funeral service for Peabody firefighter James M. Rice, came to a halt.

Cell phones were silenced. And then a voice on a loudspeaker called the color guards, the uniformed police officers, the firefighters, and EMS workers to order.

For five minutes the only sound was that of the news helicopters hovering overhead, and then slowly in the distance, the rhythmic pounding of the bass drums began to grow louder followed by the high-pitched skirl of the bagpipes.

Slowly a State Police motorcycle detail emerged on Church Street followed by two Peabody fire department trucks – Engine 5 and Ladder 1 – the ladder truck was carrying flowers while the engine carried the body of Peabody firefighter James Rice.

As the procession arrived at the church near City Hall, Rice’s casket was unloaded and some 1,000 hands snapped to attention in salute.

A procession, which included Governor Deval Patrick, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, and state Fire Marshall Stephen D. Coan, entered the church.

Cheri Rathbun, 39, of Peabody, said her 8-year-old son Jacob goes to the same school, and is friends with, Rice’s son Ryan. She watched the procession.

“He was very sweet. He was just a real good guy,’’ Rathburn said of James Rice. “Every time I look at that flag I cry. I say to my kids I hope he’s looking down from heaven and saying ‘Wow’ because this is amazing. In my 39 years here I have never felt anything like I do today.”

After the funeral cortege arrived and Rice’s casket was borne into the church, Rathburn said she appreciated that so many firefighters showed their support to the Rice family.

“It’s a huge loss,” she said. “I hate December now. I thought the ceremony and everything with all the saluting was nice. But it’s just so heart breaking.

It was quiet again for a few moments until the assembly was ordered dismissed because the vast majority of firefighters would not fit into the church. They stayed outside, most of them grouped by city or town, but many of them intermingling, sharing war stories and talking shop.

During the funeral, dozens packed a nearby tavern and raised glasses to a brother most of them did not know, with some firefighters joking that they better call the fire marshal because of how packed the bar had become.

“This is our culture,” said Dave Acker, a 27-year-veteran who is on the East Haven, Conn., fire department. “You don’t have to know the guy to know the guy.”

Firefighters came from all over, many of them had just recently done the same practice for Worcester Firefighter Jon Davies Sr. who died when a burning building collapsed on him Dec. 8.

For these firefighters -- who are not getting paid to be here -- funerals are part of the job.

“I have to be here,” said Jack Dewan Jr., 39, a Baltimore City, and former New York firefighter with 14 years of service. “When I go to work it might be me, and then they will do it all over again.”

Calgary Deputy Fire Chief Neil Johnson, 51, was in attendance, stepping into the role filled by a colleague who travelled 2,500 miles to attend Davies’ funeral in Worcester.

“I’m honored to be here,’’ he said. “I appreciate doing this.’’

The Worcester Fire Department, whose hearts are still broken for the loss of Davies less than a month ago, sent more than 100 firefighters today, packing two busses and more than a dozen cars. Davies died when a tripledecker collapsed on him.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said one firefighter who did not want to give his name.

“They did it for us, it’s part of the brotherhood,” said another.

About 11 a.m., the firefighters began to line up again, as Rice’s casket was brought back out. His children were carrying teddy bears dressed like firefighters that were given to them during the service.

As Rice’s casket was carried from the church, Gov. Patrick embraced Rice’s widow as a Peabody fire honor guard loaded the casket back onto the engine.

The pipes and drums started again. And the procession slowly made its way to the Cedar Grove Cemetery to lay Rice to rest in a last private moment for a public servant.

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