BETHPAGE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Thousands of firefighters gathered Thursday to bid a final farewell to FDNY firefighter William Tolley, who died in the line of duty after falling from an apartment building in Queens.
As CBS2’s Lou Young reported, there was silence on Central Avenue — save for the low hum of engines — at the casket’s approach atop a fire truck draped in black and purple bunting.
The truck carried Tolley’s casket for the service at St. Martin of Tours church.
There were two unbroken walls of blue in honor of Tolley. It was as large a funeral turnout as anyone there had ever seen.
“Remember them after 9/11, but I don’t remember them being this big at all,” Glen Cisek said. “He was well liked.”
Firefighters stood at attention and saluted as the casket was carefully lowered and brought into the church.
Packed inside of the church are Tolley’s family and friends and 600 members of the FDNY and firefighters from around the country, who came to pay their respects.
“There’s people from Detroit, Chicago, Louisiana, Boston and the list goes on,” retired FDNY lieutenant Joe Minogue told CBS2’s Magdalena Doris.
Even in a crowd that large, it wasn’t difficult to find lives that Tolley had touched.
“One of the best guys you ever met, Billie. Funny, happy guy,” one mourner said.
“One of the guys that always wanted to be a fireman ever since he was a young guy, and he lived his dream. And it’s just a shame that it was cut so short,” Cisek said.
“Not just a guy in uniform. He was the next level. Even if you didn’t know the guy, even if you just met him in passing he was so nice, so kind, he would do anything for anyone,” Chris Moskos said. “Any time you couldn’t do something right, he would take the time to help you out.”
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There has been an outpouring of grief for the 42-year-old firefighter who gave his life. The 14-year veteran, a member of Ladder 135 Engine 286, was killed when he fell five stories while responding to a fire last week in Queens.
“Our hearts are broken today as we lay to rest a hero,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “He laid down his life in the service of others.”
“Every time that I spoke to him, he could not wait to get there, and be with his brothers and sisters, and go out there and do his job and save people that he never met and never would know,” Tolley’s older brother, Robert, said.
Tolley was remembered as a father, a husband, a volunteer and a talented drummer in a heavy metal band. He leaves behind his wife, Marie, and 8-year-old daughter, Isabella.
“The members of the house will be there for anything she needs to help her the family, the child,” said FDNY Battalion Chief Michael Massucci.
It was impossible for all mourners to fit into the church, which could only accommodate 600 people. Many were overcome with emotion, especially when Bella received her father’s helmet and a vow from his fellow firefighters.
“Bella is our little girl now, and we’re going to take good care of her for you,” firefighter Jared Katarski said. “You got lucky because now you are going to have 40 overprotecting and overbearing dads.”
His last errand before his death was for his little girl, Bella. Proud and excited, he stopped in a bakery next to Glendale firehouse.
“He was here looking for something for a communion and we showed him cupcakes that were shaped into a cross,” said baker Sue Shiwdin.
During a ceremony Monday, Tolley’s wife Marie thanked the FDNY for their support.
“Bella and I and our entire family are trying to get through this together, but we just want to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” she said.
In his 42 years, Tolley gave selflessly until the end. As an organ donor, he is still helping others.