Volunteer firefighter honors fallen with the playing of bagpipes

Published: Sep. 10, 2021 at 9:36 AM CDT
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EDGAR, Wis. (WSAW) - Like most who were alive on the day our nation will never forget, Travis Niewolny remembers exactly where he was on September 11, 2001.

“I was a senior in high school. I remember the class I was in, I was in a shop class,” recalled Niewolny, an EMT and Engineer on the Edgar Volunteer Fire Department. “I remember a friend of mine running into our class and saying, ‘Take a look at the TV.’ We saw the second plane hit.”

A few months later, Niewolny answered his call to serve. To this day, he considers it one of the best decisions he has ever made.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be in that brotherhood,” explained Niewolny. “Members of the fire service, the police service; EMS. It’s one of the best feelings that I’ve ever had in my life.”

Along with serving with the Edgar department, Niewolny is a member of the Wisconsin State Firefighter Memorial Funeral Guard. He made the decision five years ago that he wanted to help honor his brothers and sisters lost in a special way.

“I had a friend that played the bagpipes and I watched him said ‘Oh, I’ll try that once,’” Niewolny said, not expecting the journey that would follow. “I got a training chanter, got an instructor from Pennsylvania. We skyped once a week for a half-an-hour for about a year-and-a-half to two years. I trained myself just by watching him and him telling me what I needed to do. It was probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.”

That dedication to his special craft is appreciated and admired by Edgar Fire Chief David Wagener.

“He wanted to learn the bagpipes on his own and he does it to honor those families,” Wagener said of Niewolny. “It’s just amazing that he’s a part of our organization.”

The two joke that at first, Niewolny’s playing sounded “pretty terrible,” but over time, his music has come to be a fixture at funerals and remembrance services honoring fallen service members and first responders around the state of Wisconsin.

“There’s something about them that helps the mourning process,” Wagener said. “It’s almost like a haunting, beautiful music.”

As the nation remembers the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Niewolny feels privileged to be able to bring that beautiful music to communities in north-central Wisconsin, with performances set to take place in Merrill Saturday morning and Marathon Saturday night.

“It’s my part,” Niewolny explained proudly. “Honoring the fallen firefighters, the military, the police officers, even the civilians that have perished in the 9/11 attacks. It’s an amazing feeling.”

The event at the Northwoods Veterans Post in Merrill will begin at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday with Niewolny’s performance expected to take place around 9:00.

He will also perform ‘Amazing Grace’ Saturday night before Marathon’s Silent Walk. That event begins at 7 p.m. with the public asked to line up on Main Street.

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