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Pope prays with New York firefighters

New York City firefighters have presented Pope John Paul II with the white helmet of their chaplain, who was killed at the World Trade Centre, and the Holy Father prayed at the weekend for the families of the 343 firefighters who died in the rescue effort.

"I offer a warm welcome to the delegation from the New York City Fire Department, so many of whose members lost their lives in the terrorist attack of 11 September," the pope said in English, addressing the delegation at Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.

"May almighty God grant the bereaved families consolation and peace, and may he give you and your fellow firefighters strength and courage to carry on your great service to your city," he prayed. "With the promise of my continued prayers, I invoke upon you and your families God's abundant blessings."

Among the eight firefighters in the basilica was Daniel A. Nigro, who was promoted after the attacks to chief of department, the highest uniformed position in the force. He replaced Peter Ganci, who died at the World Trade Centre.

The firefighters, some with family members, approached the Holy Father and knelt before him. One gave him the helmet of Fr Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest who was the department chaplain. Its emblem includes a cross. Judge died while giving last rites to a firefighter fatally wounded by a falling body. When the priest removed his fire helmet to pray, he was struck on the head by debris and killed.

Nigro told a rally of about 100,000 people in Rome's Piazza del Popolo: "The pope told us that since 11 September, he has prayed for the victims" of the attacks, Nigro said. "All of us will return to New York with the blessing of the Holy Father."