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DALLAS -- The bagpipes played. The bell rang. The dispatcher's final call sounded without answer.

It was a public display of dignity after 12 brothers' deaths in the West, Texas, explosion last month. And for all the respect shown in public, much more was given in private.

It's always that way.

Jack Ayres is a Dallas lawyer who used to be a paramedic, and before that, a police officer. But his title of Honorary Dallas Fire Chief means more.

"I think it's one of the greatest honors of my life," he said.

He was given the title as a thank you for his work with Friends of Dallas Fire and Rescue, which gives to Dallas firefighters who sacrifice everything, like his close friend Captain Kenny Harris.

Harris was one of 12 emergency responders who died April 17 in the fertilizer plant explosion in West.

"[He was an] excellent fire commander. I never saw any better," Ayres said of his friend. "We have some that are as good probably; but none better."

Ayres got a call in the middle of the night that Harris might have been hurt, but in all the confusion on the scene, he was missing.

It wasn't long before the next call came. Harris had died.

Friends of Dallas Fire and Rescue gives immediate financial and emotional assistance to families of fallen Dallas firefighters. Ayres could only do that if he went to West.

When he arrived, Harris' men had beat him there.

"In the fire department, there's a tradition that if one of our members dies on the fire ground, that his body is removed by the crew that he worked with," he said. "I remember his men saying to me that they didn't want him left out in the rain by himself."

"Our job was to do whatever was necessary to have his body removed with full departmental honors," Ayres continued.

In the morning, once investigators gave them clearance, Harris' crew pulled their captain's body from the site of the explosion. Then they did the same for the 11 other fallen responders, giving them a final salute, in silence.

"That's a very important tradition for the fire service," Ayres said.

It's been four weeks and the honorary chief's job hasn't ended, because Friends of Dallas Fire and Rescue never stops. They give support long after the tributes are over. If a firefighter is seriously injured or killed, they move in.

"How many people do you know of that will die for somebody they don't know, and will do it without question, without hesitation?" Ayres said. "Those are the people we serve, and we serve them because they serve us."

Carry the Load will donate some of what it raises from its Memorial Day walk to Friends of Dallas Fire and Rescue. It's a rather fitting thanks for quietly carrying a heavy load.

E-mail twoodard@wfaa.com

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