Multiple agencies and hundreds of community members joined together Thursday to acknowledge a fallen Murrieta soldier for making the ultimate sacrifice.
Patriot Guard Riders, Murrieta fire engine No. 3 and a caravan of American Medical Response ambulances left town at about 11:30 a.m. in order to be present at Camp Pendleton when the remains of U.S. Army Sgt. Eric E. Williams, 27, arrived via personal jet.
Williams, a combat flight medic who grew up in Murrieta, , just hours before he was due to fly home, according to the U.S. Army.
As Williams' mother, Janet, and wife, Wendi , an American flag-draped casket carrying his body was transferred to a hearse that would travel through Fallbrook to northbound Interstate 15.
California Highway Patrol led the motorcade followed by Patriot Guard Riders, Murrieta fire and AMR. As the procession made its way along Interstate 15 to Murrieta, multiple fire departments and ambulance crews saluted from overpasses.
Murrieta police motor officers joined the procession as it exited onto Kalmia Street and then headed south on Jefferson Avenue, where city officials and community members stood waiting to honor Williams with flags waving.
Former state Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth was among the Murrieta residents who came to pay respect.
"We came to honor his memory, honor his family," said Hollingsworth, who was accompanied by his wife, Natalie, and their three children, Kenneth, Rachel and Nathan.
"This is to show my children that here was a guy who had his entire life ahead of him and he chose to go serve his country. Because of what he did, they are going to be a little more free."
The crowd continued to grow as city hall staff and city council members arrived.
"It is important for the city and the council to support this family and pay our respects to our soldier who unfortunately lost his life much too early," said Councilwoman Kelly Bennett, who left work to be there. "So that is what we are here to do: let the family know they are loved and that the work of their husband and son has been very much appreciated by the city."
Councilman Randon Lane also took time out of his work day to attend.
"I invited everyone I knew to come here; I said 'Murrieta is bringing home one of its own,'" Lane said. "This is a Murrieta resident, a husband and a son, and they need to know the community supports them 100 percent for what he did. We mourn with them in their loss."
The city's police and firefighters formed a line and stood at attention, saluting as the procession moved along Jefferson Avenue.
"This was the least we could do to honor Sgt. Williams and his family," said Murrieta police Chief Mike Baray.
"He is a member of our community. Just in talking with people out here today, the connection you see that he had with the community and everyone here—this was the least we could do," Baray said. "It was an honor to be able to salute him and my heart goes out to his mother and his father. I can only imagine their pain. What an ultimate sacrifice he paid for our freedoms."
Murrieta fire Capt. Richard Curran was among a group of three who rode to Camp Pendleton aboard fire engine No. 3. Curran knew Williams personally when Williams served in the Fire Explorers. He still had his number in his cellphone.
"He was the go-to guy for the Explorers back then," Curran said. "If we had an Explorer chief at that time, it would have been him."
Williams, a 2002 graduate of Murrieta Valley High School, went on to become a paramedic for AMR. The ambulance crew he worked on was based at Murrieta fire Station No. 2, where he worked alongside firefighters.
Williams later became a dispatcher for AMR. The company provided 16 ambulances for his homecoming procession, calling in back up from San Diego County.
An additional 15 ambulances were situated along the route.
"Between all the North San Diego County fire departments on the overpasses and AMR, it was something to see," Curran said. "It was amazing."
According to Lisa De Metz, paramedic supervisor for AMR in Riverside County, the procession "was pulled together quickly but went smoothly."
"Eric used to be one of our employees; a lot of us call him family," De Metz said. "We are a tight-knit family and this was the best way we could honor him."
Between 50 and 70 Patriot Guard Riders from throughout Southern California joined in the procession that ended at England Mortuary off of Jefferson Avenue.
"It makes me feel good to honor the gentleman but it makes me feel sad that we lost somebody in a war," said Tedd Hybbert, a participating Patriot Guard Rider and Vietnam Veteran who lives in Menifee.
"It was really impressive to see the support on the freeway overpasses and the citizens and workers of Murrieta...But again, it is not a good thing," Hybbert said.
With less than a few hours' notice, residents of all ages lined Jefferson Avenue to greet the somber caravan, such as Murrieta Girl Scout Troop No. 1637. The Girl Scouts held a sign that said, "Thank you for your service."
"This is part of Girl-scouting, it is out of respect," said troop leader Kellie Whitehurst-Gaines. "It is for us to be responsible members of our community; it is important for the girls to be out here and see this huge community response."
Down the way, friends Veronica Donohoe and Sally Olds sat on the grass awaiting Williams' homecoming.
"I came to honor someone who has served our country, whose life was cut short," Olds said. "He is my children's age."
Donohoe, whose son recently enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, said she would not have missed it.
"He is a home-grown hero," Donohoe said. "Sgt. Williams paid the ultimate sacrifice."
View a video of the procession along Jefferson Avenue by