BURLINGTON FLATS _ Sirens sounded in the distance just before noon Sunday, putting bystanders at Burlington Flats Memorial Park on alert: Cpl. Michael L. Mayne was almost home.
More than 275 people lined up along the park on state Route 51 in the hamlet to pay respects to Mayne, who grew up in the community, joined the Army and made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
``He's a hero in everyone's eyes,'' said Capt. Art Klingler of the Edmeston Fire Department as crews waited to join the contingent escorting the fallen soldier from the Syracuse airport to his hometown.
Mayne, 21, and two other soldiers were killed a week ago today by small arms fire from insurgents in Balad, Iraq. The soldiers were part of a combat unit deployed from Alaska. Mayne is the first soldier from Otsego County to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On Sunday, Mayne's body was flown from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and was received by an Army Honor Guard, state police, Otsego County deputies and family at the airport in Syracuse, officials said. The entourage traveled more than 80 miles from Syracuse along the Thruway and then on twisting rural routes lined with farms and snow-covered fields.
From Syracuse to Edmeston, residents, law enforcement and firefighters appeared on corners to salute and pay respects to Mayne, said the Rev. Jay Henderson of Burlington Flats Baptist Church, who traveled with the contingent.
``It was nothing short of amazing,'' Henderson said.
The escort, including Patriot Guard riders, was joined by fire trucks from Edmeston and West Exeter and others after it reached Burlington.
Friends, neighbors and other residents lined the route. The steeple of the Burlington Flats Baptist Church rose behind the line of spectators, and the hearse and its escort of more than a dozen vehicles slowed as it passed by the green, the church and the Mayne family home, just off the park.
Robert Jablonski, of Plainfield, said he knew Mayne growing up and as a member of Burlington Flats Baptist Church. Jablonski, a deacon at the church, said like Jesus, Mayne made a sacrifice for others.
The community's presence and Mayne's homecoming prompted memories of his own service in Vietnam, Jablonski said.
``It brings us back to every soldier who died,'' said Jablonski, unable to hold back tears. ``Freedom, for us to be here.''
Members of Boy Scout Troop 9 of Edmeston stood beside the memorial green, many of them holding American flags. Mayne was a member of the troop.
``He was a mentor to a lot of these boys here,'' said Nancy Knorr, Webelos den leader.
Scores of people were gathering soon after 11 a.m. near the memorial park in the hamlet, part of the town of Burlington, which the 2000 census said had a population of about 1,100 people.
On Memorial Day 2003, Mayne unveiled his Eagle Scout project _ poles for flags representing the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force and Merchant Marines with the American flag.
The park has two monuments listing soldiers from World War I, World War II, the Vietnam and Korean wars, and Desert Storm. Since last week, flags in the park have been flown at half-staff.
Tierney Johnson, a friend of Mayne's since pre-school, said she was a flute player in the band that performed a medley of armed services themes during the dedication of Mayne's project. She traveled from Troy, Ala., where she is attending college, to pay respects to her former classmate.
Tierney Johnson and Alex Johnson, both 20, aren't related but were quick to smile and say they were best friends with Mayne.
``Michael loved to tell stories,'' Alex said.
``We always used to assume they were true,'' Tierney said.
But often the stories were tall tales that stemmed from Mayne's character and ability to befriend everyone across cliques, they said while standing in the park. In school, he was the only one who could get away with ``talking back'' to teachers, who seemed to recognize Mayne was being sarcastic, not disrespectful, they said.
``He was just the kid everyone wanted to be around,'' said Alex, who was home from Siena College, near Albany. Alex said he was with Mayne the day before he left for the Army, reaching a longtime goal.
``He was so happy,'' Alex said.
Mayne enlisted after graduating in 2006 from Edmeston Central School, which has an enrollment of about 575 students. He was a member of the 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, a unit of the 25th Infantry Division based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The military announced Friday he would be honored with medals and ribbons.
Tierney Johnson said the turnout Sunday was a testament to how many lives Mayne touched.
Several others in Burlington Flats and Edmeston echoed that their presence Sunday was in respect for Mayne and for other troops serving the nation.
Julie Wellman stood across the street from the crowd and said she was taking pictures for the Mayne family. Being at his homecoming meant ``everything,'' she said.
``He was a beautiful person,'' said Wellman, of Hartwick.
Bursts of sobbing broke out as the entourage left the hamlet, and some spectators hugged as the line broke up at about noon.
The caravan proceeded to Edmeston, where some residents along the route stood respectfully in their driveways. In the village of Edmeston, the four corners were crowded with residents watching the procession as it turned toward the Houk-Johnston-Terry Funeral Home nearby.
Moments later, state police, Otsego deputies, firefighters and other officials stood at attention, then saluted as the casket was taken from the hearse. The Honor Guard of six pallbearers carried the flag-draped casket into the funeral home, their precision marked by the silence of more than 100 onlookers standing in front of nearby homes.
``It's an honor to bring a soldier home,'' Trooper Steve Griffiths of Troop C said after the observance.
Sgt. 1st Class David Fallon, who has worked with the Maynes on arrangements, said the family was doing ``well'' considering the circumstances, but wasn't ready to speak publicly. Sunday was a ``difficult day'' and ``a reality check,'' said Fallon, of the Army National Guard, and the community presence was ``an incredible showing of support for the family.''
On the outskirts of Burlington Flats before noon Sunday, two trucks and an ambulance from the Edmeston Fire Department were parked on Route 51. Crews wiped down the vehicles and prepared flags as they waited to join the escort as it headed into the hamlet.
``We're honoring a hero on his last trip home,'' Klingler said. ``This is what small-town America is all about.''
The late Cpl. Michael L. Mayne will be remembered at calling hours today and at a ceremony Tuesday.
Organizers said the schedule includes:
Calling hours from 2 to 8 p.m. today at the Burlington Flats Baptist Church, when visitors may pay respects and offer condolences to the family, said the Rev. Jay Henderson.
Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class David Fallon said U.S. Rep. Michael Arcuri, D-Utica, will visit with the family at 2 p.m. today.
A service at Edmeston Central School at 11 a.m. Tuesday. Fallon said school will not be in session Tuesday.