WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Aiden Riebel and his family already knew Thursday was going to be a special night. The 6-year-old, who has battled cancer for nearly his entire life, was set to be named an honorary fireman in a ceremony at his local Washington Township Fire Department.
Yet even they could not have predicted just how special the night would become.
With the fire hall's auditorium packed with friends, family members and firefighters, Aiden took an official oath to become an honorary firefighter. Deputy chief Ed Weitzman then presented him with a small plaque, official firefighter's helmet and a Saint Florian medal. As it turns out, the surprises were just getting started.
With the Saint Florian medal dangling around his neck, Aiden and his 10-year-old brother, Max, were then each given a Carlos Ruiz jersey and a baseball autographed by the Phillies catcher. Moments later, Ruiz himself -- to the surprise of nearly everyone in the auditorium -- emerged from a door at the back of the stage and proceeded to engage Aiden in a teary-eyed 45-second embrace.
"Sometimes things happen for some reason, but this is special that God put us all together right here," said an emotional Ruiz. "Thanks to all the firefighters that came out and everybody else that is here and thank you for letting me be part of this."
Though only 6 years old, Aiden recently entered his third bout with cancer. He was first diagnosed at the age of 1, but went into remission one year later. The cancer returned when he was 4 years old, only for Aiden to beat it a second time.
Unfortunately, it returned for a third time this past year when he was diagnosed with Stage IV Leukemia.
"Most kids who relapse for a third time don't make it," said his mother, Christine Ludwig. "But he's still here. He's just amazing. He's so resilient."
Just an hour prior to the event in Washington Township, Ruiz was at Citizens Bank Park discussing his new three-year, $26 million deal with the Phillies. Immediately following his news conference at the stadium, he raced over to the fire department for "by far the most important" thing on his Thursday schedule.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, Aiden's aunt, Katie Stier, was the only member of the entire family aware that Ruiz would be attending Thursday's event. She notified the rest of the family at approximately noon on the day of the event, but she kept one last surprise guest completely hidden from Aiden.
Along with meeting his favorite baseball player, Aiden on Thursday met his favorite sports mascot as the Phillie Phanatic stormed onto the stage, instantly bringing an smile to the boy's face.
"Everyone just wanted to do something and be part of this," Stier said. "Between the fire department setting this all up and the Phils being so eager to help out, it all just came together to be a very special evening for Aiden."
For Aiden, the festivities provided a brief distraction from his seemingly never-ending battle.
As he attempts to beat the disease for a third time, his routine now involves at least two hospital trips every week to receive transfusions and other treatments. Though Aiden is aware of what is going on to the extent that he knows he is sick and needs the continuous treatment to keep living, his mother said he never lets that break his spirit.
"He just burrows through it all, like, 'OK, Mom, what's our next trip? What are we doing today?'" Ludwig said. "So every day is a new beginning for him, and we cherish every one we get with him."
It's that relentless courage and bravery that made Aiden the perfect candidate to be an honorary firefighter. It's also what has made him a hero and inspiration to many in the community, though nobody -- especially his mother -- is allowed to tell him so.
Yet standing in front of one of Washington Township's fire engines with her arms draped around her son, Ludwig still tried to sneak it in just one time. Aiden wouldn't have it.
"He already knows that -- I'm not allowed to tell him, because every time I tell him that he's my hero, he goes, 'Mom, stop!'" Ludwig said, only to have her son turn and playfully jab her in the stomach. "See? Mom's not allowed to say that he's my hero, but he is."
It didn't take long for the town's firefighters to see why, either.
Just a month ago, Aiden and his family attended a dinner after receiving an invitation from the department. Aiden "absolutely loved" the experience, according to his mother, and the local firefighters wasted no time befriending the courageous boy.
That all led to Thursday's ceremony at which he became the town's newest firefighter -- and so much more.
"Within the last few weeks, everything just came about that he got to be an honorary firefighter and he's been so excited about it," Ludwig said. "But then the fact that they could get Carlos here and the Phillie Phanatic here -- it just made an already unbelievable experience that much greater for him, and I can't express how thankful I am."
Following the ceremony in the auditorium, Aiden led the way out to the garage where he and Max posed for a photo with many of the approximately 40 firefighters in attendance. The brothers then climbed behind the wheel of one of the trucks, while family members took turns snapping pictures in between constantly thanking the firefighters.
"It's overwhelming. It's just overwhelming that one town can come together for one child so much," Ludwig said. "I want people to realize that no matter where you go, there is hope. There's hope in your town, there's hope in your community. They give you the strength to keep going."
Shy and reserved for much of the night, Aiden -- with his bedtime having come and gone by this point -- finally found the perfect words to sum up the evening.
"I haven't had this much fun," Aiden said. "Today was a pretty cool day."