Thousands gather to honor fallen SF firefighters

SAN FRANCISCO

A wall of solemn firefighters greeted their fallen colleagues at St. Mary's Cathedral. The grieving men and women had the support of thousands of firefighters from around California and as far away as Boston, Canada and Mexico.

"We all do the same job, we all know what everybody's going through, what the families are going through," Seattle Fire Department Capt. Peter Aiko said.

The service brought out ordinary citizens and retired firefighters like Frank Grimley, who spent 30 years with the department.

"It's a brotherhood where we all do the same job, we all take chances and I think just out of respect for these two individuals who lost their lives I should be here," Grimley said.

Inside nearly 5,000 people filled every seat and corner of the cathedral to remember and praise Perez and Valerio.

It appeared to be a routine house fire in Diamond Heights last Thursday, until the blaze flashed, trapping the two men inside. Perez died that day; Valerio dies Saturday morning. It was the department's deadliest call in 65 years.

"These have been dark days for the city and we have experienced a great loss," Mayor Ed Lee said. "When the healing begins and we start to move forward, we do so in honor of Vincent and Anthony."

The families of each firefighter were presented medals as the president of the firefighters union spoke of the lives of the fallen men. Perez and Valerio remembered as big-hearted men who loved life and loved their jobs as firefighters.

"Vince was a former Marine, Tony was a world traveling hippie, Vince worked on classic cars and hot rods, Tony was an urban chicken farmer, Vince had an amazing economy of words and Tony had an inability to put a period on the end of a sentence," Lt. Tom O'Connor said.

The families of each man also were given time to tell San Francisco why the firefighters were so special.

"After a while he worked as a paramedic in San Francisco and I thought, 'You know, that couldn't be too dangerous,' but I also found out that's also pretty bad, but he seemed to be pretty OK with it, you know, he would tell us some stories but he always kept the bad stuff away from us," Valerio's brother Mark Valerio said. "The fire station seemed to be Tony's second home."

Marlene Perez described her brother as a man who commanded men and respect, a difficult job.

"Some of you loved him so and wonder if he loved you back," she said. "Well, I'm here to tell you, yes, he did."

Valerio's best friend, who used to work with him as a paramedic, described a multi-facetted man who lived life fully and was also a consummate professional.

"He could walk into a chaotic situation, diffuse the emotional fireworks, pick up the pieces and bring both sanity and levity to an otherwise tense, and many times dangerous, ambulance call," Brian Hager said. "He was the best part of many people's worst days."

Toward the end of the ceremony, San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White presented each man's family with his badge and helmet. There was also a bell tribute and the last alarm, a ritual performed when firefighters die in the line of duty. Both men posthumously received the firefighters' line of duty medal.

In addition to thanking all of the firefighters and families on her remarks, Hayes-White also thanked all of the firefighters who came from around the Bay Area to man San Francisco stations so those firefighters could attend the service.

>> VIDEO ARCHIVE: Watch unedited video of the funeral services here

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