NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A firefighter died after falling from the roof of a multi-family home in Queens while battling an extra-alarm blaze on Thursday.
William Tolley, 42 — of Ladder 135, Engine 286 — was a 14-year veteran of the FDNY. He was also a husband and the father of an 8-year-old girl.
As CBS2’s Tracee Carrasco reported, Tolley’s body left Wyckoff Heights Medical Center Thursday evening as fellow firefighter stood by to salute.
“Like all members of FDNY understood every single day, he put his life on line,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “But he did it willingly in service of others.”
The FDNY said the fire broke out on the second floor of a multi-family home on 1615 Putnam Ave. in Ridgewood, Queens on Thursday afternoon. The initial fire call described the fire as being confined to a single one-bedroom apartment — but it was later raised to two alarms.
As CBS2’s Dave Carlin reported, the fire had been brought under control when tragedy struck. Witnesses told CBS2 that Tolley was attempting to get into the basket when it shook, and the firefighter fell to his death.
Several witnesses, including construction workers, across the street described how the ladder from the firetruck suddenly shook.
“I seen the fireman go up the ladder, go in the white thing — the bucket — and then the ladder shakes. I don’t know why it jerks or why it shakes. After it shakes, then he fall out. He was already up there on top of the roof in the bucket. There was like two or three firemen already on the roof, and then it shakes, and he fall out,” construction worker Michael Lewis said.
FDNY Commissioner Nigro called Tolley’s death a terrible tragedy.
“The fire was on the second floor. Firefighter Tolley was operating on the roof. That was his position as the outside ventilation firefighter, operating around the area where Ladder 135’s bucket was located. Firefighter Tolley fell five stories from the roof and he perished about 20 minutes into fighting that fire. The circumstances of the tragedy and the fall are right now under investigation,” he said.
Nigro said it’s common practice for firefighters to head to the roof to open doors and ventilate a burning building to save people above the fire.
“It was nothing about the fire that really had anything to do with the accident that occurred. It was really in the operation that he was performing on the roof — which is a routine operation for us, and somehow he fell from the roof,” Nigro said.
Chopper 2 was over the scene of the blaze on Thursday afternoon.
“I feel so sad,” said Norberto Arellano.
Arellano stood just beyond the police tape looking straight ahead – stunned by what he witnessed while walking his two young daughters home from school. Tolley hit the ground just as Arellano walked by, as CBS2’s Jessica Layton reported.
“We never knew we were going to see this,” he said.
Edwin Rivera works nearby.
“I rushed in, everybody rushed in. I started calling police, ambulance — I told him to hurry up fast,” added witness Edwin Rivera. “There’s a firefighter on the floor.”
Rivera was also left traumatized by what he witnessed.
“I’m nervous, because I seen it with my own eyes when he fall down,” he said.
For witnesses the shock of seeing this was followed by the realization that the firefighter was in grave condition.
“It looked like it jerked a little bit, and the door on the side was open, and he was standing over there and he fell out,” another man said.
Tolley was taken to Wyckoff Heights Hospital, but he could not be saved.
As CBS2’s Raegan Medgie reported, there was a solemn mood at the hospital where the firefighter’s family, the FDNY chaplain, a van full of uniformed firefighters, and Mayor Bill de Blasio had arrived on Thursday afternoon.
Fellow firefighters at the scene were overcome with grief.
At least two other people were injured in the blaze, authorities say. Another firefighter was put inside an ambulance — he was alert. Witnesses told CBS2’s Dave Carlin he may have been operator of the ladder truck.
Mayor de Blasio called the firefighter, “a man dedicated to protecting others.”
“Like all members of the FDNY understood every day he was putting his life on the line, but he did it willingly in the service of others,” the mayor said.
Tolley – of Bethpage, Long Island – left behind a wife, Marie, and an 8-year-old daughter, Isabella, along with countless members of the FDNY who are now mourning his loss.
De Blasio and Nigro met with Tolley’s wife at the hospital.
“Everyone is in a state of shock and grief, and to his family we say, ‘we will stand with you, not only today, but in the days ahead and for years and years to come.’ This is what the FDNY does, stays by families through everything that comes ahead,” the mayor said.
The mayor also offered condolences to Tolley’s brother, his parents, and the firefighters at Ladder 135, Engine 286 in Ridgewood, where William was stationed.
Tolley was also a talented musician. He was the drummer of a band called “Internal Bleeding” — a group he helped form at the age of 16. His bandmates posted a heartbreaking message on their Facebook page.
His bandmates were in a state of shock Thursday night.
“He was so talented. He had so much talent, you know? And it was such a passion of his to play drums and he loved it so much, and to see him – I can’t – just to see him smiling behind the drum kit and just pounding away, and he just loved it,” bandmate Chris Pervelis told CBS2’s Ali Bauman in an exclusive interview.
Tolley will be remembered as a loving husband, a doting father, a best friend, and now a hero.
“And he always made me laugh – always – and I don’t know how I’m going to go on,” Pervelis said as he broke down and began to cry. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without him. He was my best friend. He meant everything to me. He was always there for me — always!”
Tolley is the 1,147th member of the FDNY to die in the line of duty.