COLUMBIA — The silver bell rang three times, crisp and clear.
In an average firehouse on an average day, the sound of the bell calls firefighters to duty and alerts them when that duty is complete.
On Thursday, though, the sound signaled not only the end of a job, but the end of a life. Not only the death of a firefighter, but the death of a father, a husband, a brother and a friend.
The bell rang out over the hundreds of mourners who gathered at The Crossing to honor and remember Lt. Bruce Britt of the Columbia Fire Department, who died Saturday when a walkway collapsed at MU's University Village apartments.
Friends, family and firefighters from across the state packed the church for the service, which lasted more than an hour and featured speakers who knew Britt through church and the Fire Department. (A recording of the service is available online.)
Many of the personnel in attendance were part of a procession that began earlier in the morning at Cosmopolitan Park and included emergency personnel from more than 40 fire and police departments. The procession entered the church between two rows of honor guards, whose axes, hooks and polished red helmets glinted under the morning sun. Suspended above them between two cranes, an enormous U.S. flag rose and fell in the wind.
Inside the church, flowers arranged on small, gold ladders filled the stage. There was no casket. Britt's uniform, helmet and signature cowboy hat rested in the center of the stage.
Mayor Bob McDavid, Alive In Christ Lutheran Church Pastor Tim Morris and Columbia Fire Chief Charles Witt were among the speakers who shared memories of Britt and offered words of support for his family, friends and fellow firefighters.
"Lt. Bruce Britt is a hero," McDavid said. "We will never forget him."
McDavid remembered one day when the Fire Department invited him and other Columbia City Council members to practice extrication training. Britt helped McDavid as he attempted to remove volunteers from wrecked cars.
"Without Lt. Bruce Britt at my side to help me, I think those two volunteers would still be in that car," he said.
Morris remembered Britt as the cowboy in his congregation. Dressed in jeans, boots and a cowboy belt buckle, he stuck out. But, Morris said, "this big, strong cowboy always had this beautiful little girl attached to him," referring to Britt's young daughter, Stormy.
"Bruce was the kind of man who really wanted his actions to do the talking for him," Morris said. "I think we'd all agree that his actions speak volumes to us today."
Witt commended the firefighters in attendance for continuing their duties despite their frustration and sadness.
"As your fire chief, I could not be more proud," he said.
"As your fire chief," he repeated, fighting back tears, "I could not be more proud."
Firefighters who had come to pay their respects spoke of the intense camaraderie that comes with the job.
"It's a family," said Matt Morice of the Fulton Fire Department. "We live with each other one-third of our lives."
He said Britt's death was like losing a family member.
Before Saturday, a Columbia firefighter had not died in the line of duty since 1986.
Donald Crum, 39, was responding to an accident on Dec. 1, 1986, when his fire engine hit an icy curve and rolled over. Crum, who was riding on the back platform, was dead before he was taken from the scene, according to Missourian archives.
Robert Bechtel, a firefighter who has applied for a job with the Fire Department, said it was the first firefighter's memorial he has attended. At first, he struggled to find words to describe how he felt.
"It's one of the best things I've ever seen," he said. "It's amazing … to know that you can do your job, and your family is supported by such an amazing group of individuals."
The Boone County Fire Protection District Pipes and Drums band performed an emotional rendition of "Amazing Grace" to close the service.