NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Firefighters from across the country traveled to Staten Island on Thursday to pay their final respects to Lt. Gordon “Matt” Ambelas.

Thousands of firefighters from as far away as St. Louis, Philadelphia, Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, came to honor Ambelas, the first FDNY firefighter to die in the line of duty in more than two years.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered the eulogy at Ambelas’ funeral. He said Ambelas was dedicated, hardworking, kind and, above all, a family man.

“All members of the FDNY — but really all New Yorkers — are feeling this moment with pain and sadness because we’ve lost a true hero,” de Blasio said. “Our city is inspired by his courage and deeply saddened by his loss.”

Thousands and thousands of white-gloved hands were raised in salute as Ambelas’ casket covered in a Fire Department flag was brought out from The Church of St. Clare in Great Kills, WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported.

The 40-year-old married father of two young daughters, Gabriella and Giovanna, died from smoke inhalation and burns late Saturday while searching for possible victims on the 19th floor at the Independence Towers apartment complex in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“As smoke and flames poured out of the 19th floor from a two-alarm fire, Matt’s only thoughts were for the safety of others,” de Blasio said. “He led from the front, as great leaders do — as he always did – and then, very tragically, made the ultimate sacrifice.”

As CBS 2’s Andrea Grymes reported, a family friend read a eulogy written by Ambelas’ wife, Nanette Russo-Ambelas.

“You gave us stability, comfort, warmth and safety,” Margaret Gulliksen read. “You saved me. I wish you could save me now.”

Russo-Ambelas also wrote that whenever her husband came home, the first words out of his mouth were “where’s my girls?”

It’s unclear how Ambelas became trapped in the apartment. Investigators said there was clutter and debris inside, which hampered search and rescue efforts. Officials said the fire was started by a pinched electrical cord.

Family and friends said Ambelas’ life of fighting fires and saving lives was constant in a stellar, decorated 14-year career. He was just promoted to lieutenant 10 months ago.

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Linda Verderosa’s husband worked alongside Ambelas for his entire career. She choked up on her way to the service for a man she considers a family member.

Firefighters outside church after funeral for  Matt Ambelas on July 10, 2014. (credit: Juliet Papa/1010 WINS)

Firefighters outside church after funeral for Matt Ambelas on July 10, 2014. (credit: Juliet Papa/1010 WINS)

“He couldn’t wait to go to work,” she told CBS 2’s Weijia Jiang. “He was just so happy to be a firefighter, just so happy to help people every day. He was the most awesome person in the world. His wife was the love of his life, his daughters are beautiful, and we’re going to miss him.”

During the service, Captain Jerry Tucker, who worked closely with Ambelas at Ladder 81 on Staten Island, could only sing his colleague’s praises as a true, humble professional.

“Many times he was searching for victims above a fire without a line in place,” Tucker said. “Without hesitation, he put himself in harm’s way.”

Mike Torino, a firefighter in East Haven, Connecticut, said he came to the funeral to “support the family, support the department in their loss and send off our brother.”

Ambelas helped the city through some of its darkest hours, including the recovery from the Sept. 11 attacks and Superstorm Sandy.

In May, he helped save 7-year-old boy who became trapped in a roll-down gate. The boy was pulled 15 feet off the ground when his arm and head got stuck.

The boy’s father was overcome with emotion outside the church Thursday.

“It’s very sad to be at a funeral for the man who saved my son’s life,” Abraham Gottlieb told Grymes.

A fund has been established for the education of his daughters, ages 5 and 8. Checks should be made to the “Ambelas Children’s Education Fund” and mailed to:

The FDNY Foundation
9 MetroTech Center
Brooklyn NY 11201

For more information on the fund, visit

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