Remembering Collin Abrams
Collin Abrams never had any doubt about what he was going to do with his life … or whose life he would choose to emulate.
A fourth-generation firefighter, the 21-year-old Washington Crossing man was in line to start fire school in Philadelphia in September, preparatory to become a city firefighter, his life’s ambition. Active in several fire companies and rescue squads along the Bucks County-New Jersey border and frequently singled out for honors locally, statewide and nationally, he was the son of Michael and Cheryl Abrams. Michael, also a lifelong volunteer, currently serves as fire marshal in Raritan Township, N.J.
Collin Michael Abrams, the couple’s only child, died July 14th in a drowning accident at the home of a friend in Hopewell Township, N.J. He left his family and friends with treasured memories of a passionate, dutiful and committed young man who wanted nothing so much as to spend his life in the service of others.
“From the day he was born, he was raised in the fire service,” says Michael Abrams. “I don’t think a day went by when there wasn’t an interest in the fire service. He followed in my footsteps. It was our passion. Collin from day one was taught the history and tradition of the fire service, and he respected that. He got it all from early on. That’s where he wanted to be.”
Just a few months ago, Collin took the test for the Philadelphia Fire Department, and scored about as high as you can score without being a veteran, who get preference on the entrance exam, says Michael Abrams.
“He scored 100 on the test, and then because of his certifications being a Pennsylvania firefighter, certified with the National Pro Board, he was given extra points. He was also a Pennsylvania emergency medical technician, which also scored him extra credit points.”
Collin was also a swift water rescue technician.
If firefighting was in the young man’s blood, so was his Irish heritage. Michael says he and his son were members of the Hibernian Fire Company in Lambertville. Cheryl Abrams is British-born, but most of the Abrams family were Irish
Perhaps it was the Irish in him that propelled him to join the Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes and Drums . But it’s a safe bet that Collin once again was following his father’s example.
“We went to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Philadelphia in March, and I saw the band,” says Michael Abrams. “Man, the way these guys came up, the fire department right behind them, it was just incredible. Well, my mother (Alice) had died last July 18, and I thought … I want to do something to honor my mother.”
Michael drove down to practice at the Philadelphia Police Academy, and he brought Collin along. Collin at that point, perhaps feeling a bit overextended, was not certain he wanted to join the pipe band, but Michael joined, hoping to become a drummer … and it wasn’t long before Collin picked up sticks. Practice and band gigs soon occupied much of their time.
“Collin and I both, our commitment levels are very high,” says Michael. “We knew right away, this was gonna be cool. It was a thing that me and Collin shared together. We shared good times on our ride down to practice.”
For Collin, band practice was also an opportunity to pick the brains of the current and retired Philadelphia firefighters who belonged to the unit, says Michael. “The guys in the band gave him so much information. They were prepping him for the career he was going into. We’d stay for hours and hours.”
It quickly became apparent to the other musicians that the father and son were deeply committed to the band … and the son in particular was making his mark.
“Anything we asked him to do, he was jumping up and getting it done,” recalls band President Sean Gallagher. “He made all of the parades. He was in the honor guard. The kid had a great impact on everybody.”
Band master and music director Mark O’Donnell was particularly touched by the young man’s enthusiasm. “He was with us a very short period of time, but from the instructor’s perspective, he really reminded me why we do this.”
When band members learned of Collin’s untimely death, they took it hard, but they resolved to honor his memory in a way that would have meant everything to him. It’s the custom in the Police and Fire Band that members who have passed through their probationary period are honored in a ceremony in which they are presented with their kilt. Typically, the probationary period lasts about a year. Band president Gallagher says that the Abrams were so active and so obviously, deeply committed, that they both were on target for a “kilting” well ahead of schedule.
Here, however, Collin was just a step or two ahead of his father.
“Collin had been playing with the band only three months, but he was learning fast. He was definitely going to be playing in time for the Irish festival in Wildwood in September.”
At his family’s request, Collin was “kilted” posthumously, buried in his band uniform. “We didn’t have to think about it,” says O’Donnell.
The band also presented the family with a Philadelphia Fire Department helmet with Collin’s name on it. They saw him off with full honors, playing at the funeral as if it had been a line-of-duty death. It was, O’Donnell acknowledged “a rough day.”
“We’re a service band,” O’Donnell explains. “We play a lot of funerals. Line-of-duty deaths (like the recent deaths of Philadelphia firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney) are really hard.” But in Collin’s case, he added, there was the sad realization that a potentially brilliant career had ended before it ever had a chance to begin.
The Abrams, for their part, were grateful that band members saw fit to honor this young man that they had know for a few short months. Now, they face the task of moving on, drawing on their memories for solace. Michael Abrams in particular will remember a young man who was much more than a son. “We were best buddies,” he said. “Best friends. I don’t know many fathers who had the relationship that Collin and I had. We were very tight.”