NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — There was a sea of sadness Wednesday during a moving tribute to an NYPD officer who died a hero – after being injured in a fire in Coney Island, Brooklyn.
As CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported, hundreds of New York’s finest gathered as flags were lowered to half-staff, and a bugler played “Taps,” for veteran NYPD Officer Dennis Guerra.
Guerra, 38, succumbed to his injuries Wednesday after being critically hurt in the fire. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said Guerra “died trying to save others.”
The officer was pronounced dead shortly before 7 a.m. at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, police said. The married father of four had more than seven years on the job.
Guerra was one of two officers critically hurt in Sunday’s blaze that police said was started when 16-year-old Marcell Dockery allegedly lit a mattress on fire in the hallway of a high-rise at 2007 Surf Ave., in the Coney Island Houses public housing development.
Mayor Bill de Blasio held a moment of silence for Guerra and ordered flags lowered to half-staff across the city Wednesday in honor of the fallen officer. Meanwhile, memorial ceremony was held at One Police Plaza, and included a helicopter flyover in Guerra’s honor.
He called Guerra “exemplary” and said “we will honor his sacrifice.”
“We’ve lost a good man this morning — a very brave police officer, Dennis Guerra, who did something that most of us wouldn’t understand how to do,” de Blasio said. “He went selflessly towards the flame, selflessly towards those who are in danger, no matter what the risk to him.”
Speaking before hundreds of officers as flags were lowered in the plaza of police headquarters, Bratton said “the entire city grieves this terrible loss.”
“Police Officer Guerra gave his life trying to save others and that is the ultimate selfless act,” Bratton said.
Guerra’s colleague, 36-year-old Rosa Rodriguez, remained Wednesday at the burn unit at Weill Cornell Medical Center. Rodriguez is a single mother of four kids and a four-year veteran of the NYPD Housing Bureau.
CBS 2 was told Rodriguez was making steady progress in hopes of a full recovery.
“We pray that every young person who hears of the tragic passing of hero police officer Dennis Guerra and of the suffering of officer Rosa Rodriguez and their families, learns that there [are] deadly consequences that result from foolish actions,” PBA president Patrick Lynch said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Guerra and Rodriguez families, friends and their fellow officers.”
Thirteen others were also injured in the blaze, including three firefighters.
Rodriguez’s sisters attended the ceremony honoring Guerra at One Police Plaza, even as Rodriguez herself struggled to survive her injuries.
“Today is a very sad day for the NYPD – Officer Guerra’s family,” Lynch said. “but it’s also a day of hope that Officer Rodriguez’s family is standing in front of a hospital the day she walks out — and we applaud rather than cry.”
But on Wednesday, the tears were flowing for Officer Guerra, and police badges were banded in black.
Guerra never regained consciousness after thick smoke overwhelmed him during the fire.
“He went selflessly towards the flames; selflessly towards those in danger no matter what the risk to him,” Mayor de Blasio said. “Our hearts go out to the Guerra family. We will stand by them. We will stand by them in their grief and beyond.”
On Wednesday, the NYPD planned to file felony murder charges against Dockery. Police said he confessed to starting the fire on the 13th floor of the high-rise because he was bored.
One neighbor called Dockery a “good kid” and said he was not a troublemaker. But another resident of 2007 Surf Ave. told police Dockery menaced her with a razor a few months ago.
Dockery had also been arrested before when he was 13 for allegedly setting a fire in school. He had other sealed arrests for minor charges as a juvenile.
In the fire that killed Officer Guerra, Dockery has been charged with arson, assault and reckless endangerment.
PBA President Lynch had no sympathy for Dockery as he honored the officer whose life was lost.
“A kid like that, who is bored, needs to realize every action there’s a reaction and that reaction sometimes is life or death,” he said. “In this case, it was death. It’s not a free ride, he should pay. He murdered a New York City police officer and we won’t forget that.”
Officers Guerra and Rodriguez were overcome by smoke and carbon monoxide while responding to Sunday’s fire. They were hit by a wall of smoke when they reached the 13th floor by elevator.
On radio transmissions, the officers could be heard gasping for air.
The FDNY was just minutes behind them. Bratton said firefighters found the officers “unconscious and unresponsive” in the hallway.
Officer Guerra was survived by his wife Cathy and their four children – Kathleen, 20; Jonathan, 17; Alyssa, 14; and Zachary, 7. His neighbors in Far Rockaway remembered him as a hardworking and devoted family man who followed his father into the NYPD.
The officer’s father, Detective Denitor Guerra, retired from the NYPD after 23 years with five medals for police excellence.
As CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez reported, family friend Dilcia Carrion has known Guerra for more than 25 years. Her mind was flooded with memories as she walked past his home – the same place they played as children.
“He was there for you; loved to play practical jokes. You know just a good person at hear,” Carrion said. “Family guy; loved his kids; loved his family; loved his mom.”
FDNY firefighter Joe Tarantini’s in-laws live across the street from Guerra.
“I’m personally devastated,” he said.
Tarantini met Guerra when he was a young boy.
“As a firefighter, you know, I could understand what he was doing,” he said, “and I am just saddened by everything that happened.”
Bratton said New York City does not have any specific policies in place when it comes to police entering a burning a building or using elevators, an issue he said they’re now addressing.
Carrion said the new police policy would ensure her friend did not die in vain.
“If it comes down to something like that, you know, they know not to use an elevator or use the stairs, or they can do it so that this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
“Most other major cities do not have a policy or training to address this issue. It’s something we are certainly, based on this incident, going to correct very quickly for ourselves,” Bratton said.
Police said Guerra is the first NYPD officer to die in the line of duty since 2011, when Officer Peter Figoski was shot and killed while responding to a robbery in Brooklyn.
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