Thousands of firefighters lined the streets of Bethpage on a misty Thursday morning to pay tribute to FDNY veteran William Tolley, who plunged to his death last week battling a fire in Queens.
Fellow firefighters had flooded Tolley’s hometown for a series of memorial services this week and their numbers grew exponentially Thursday as more than 10,000 people were expected to attend the funeral service. Outside the church, red ribbons abutted utility poles and American flags hung high.
The steady mist eventually gave way to cloudy skies, punctuating the occasion as a somber mood enveloped the area around St. Martin of Tours church. With police enforcing morning road closures, the long stretch running from Hicksville Road to Bethpage State Parkway was eerily quiet until mourners trickled in for the ceremony.
“His life was so rich, so rich in fact, that it makes the loss even more raw and painful,” New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio told mourners. “But let’s take stock and remember a rich life and a full life…a life lived the way we all should live.”
Tolley, 42, and about 100 other firefighters were battling a blaze at a five-story building in Ridgewood, Queens last Thursday when he fell to his death. The circumstances around his fatal fall are currently under investigation.
The funeral marked a tragic end to a life of a man whose love for his family, his wife Marie and 8-year-old daughter Bella, was endless.
“Bella was his first and foremost priority, the apple of his eye,” Tolley’s colleague Jarrett Kotarski said while also recalling Tolley playing drums in the heavy metal band Internal Bleeding. “Billy lived his life to the fullest, he chased down all his dreams and caught them.”
Leading the procession was Tolley’s Ladder Company 135, including one in black and purple bunting carrying his American flag-draped casket. Tolley’s widow and daughter followed the casket into the church as hymns blared.
The words “In Loving Memory of William N. Tolley” word etched into the truck.
“His death leaves so much pain, confusion and crying,” said Father Patrick Woods, recalling the moment of devastating grief when Tolley’s daughter, Bella, learned of her father’s death.
“Mommy, why are you gone all day, what happened?” she asked.
“Marie a loving mother carrying her own crushing grief, gently tells Bella that Billy has gone home to God,” he recalled.
“Mommy,” Bella responded, “daddy is too young to die.”
And then she realized.
“I have no daddy.”
Consoling Bella, Marie reminded her that Tolley loved helping people.
“That’s what firemen do,” she said.