At a historic and emotional FDNY ceremony Thursday, New York City graduated its most ethnically diverse class of probationary firefighters -- 62 percent are minorities.
Graduates and their families were overwhelmed with pride and tears at the event at Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. "I can't explain it. I am in tears," Samuel Murray III, 26, of St. Albans, Queens, said after receiving his diploma.
The 242 graduates will be assigned to firehouses across the city and will be under the tutelage of senior experienced firefighters and officers.
"This is it. This is where I am supposed to be -- to serve this city and help," said Murray, who is black. "This is a job that if you care and have a giving heart it's the place to be. I hope today helps open the eyes of others that this is a great job."
For many minorities, Thursday's ceremony marked a milestone, a passage into one of the city's most revered institutions that had been reserved mostly for white males.
For the past 12 years, the FDNY has doubled its recruiting efforts to hire more minorities. A court-ordered monitor is overseeing the department's plan to hire more minority firefighters.
"It's a day of enlightenment," said Murray's mother, Charlotte Murray, also of St. Albans. "Today is a very special day for us." Charlotte Murray, a nurse, encouraged her son to become an emergency medical technician to help pave his entry into the FDNY.
"Yes, I thought there would be hindrances, that this day may have never come. But today, I am appreciative for something long overdue," Charlotte Murray said.
Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano said: "Today is an extremely important day -- a historic day. We have an extraordinary class of extremely well-prepared graduates who are ready and who we are proud of."
Of the graduates, 24 percent are black and 36 percent are Hispanic, according to the FDNY. Two percent are members of other minority groups.
"This is a dream come true," said graduate Patrick Oh, 26, of Flushing, Queens, one of two Korean-Americans in the graduation class. "Being a firefighter is something I always wanted to be since I was a little kid. I have been waiting for this for a long time."
Oh's father, Chung Kun, a retired South Korean marine, said at the graduation: "I'm very proud of my son. He's a good boy."
Graduate Alfredo Garcia, 26, of Bushwick, Brooklyn, said: "It's an honor and it will be a privilege to serve the city, my community and be part of the department."
Becoming a firefighter means starting a new life, said his wife, Jillian Garcia, 36. "We can start a family and buy a home. This change in the department has been very fortunate for us," said Jillian Garcia, who began to cry.
The FDNY now has 7,700 firefighters. Of those, 1,230 are minorities, according to the fire department.