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Thousands Gather to Honor Fallen Firefighters

 

Bay Citizen reporters sent live updates Friday afternoon from the funerals of San Francisco Fire Department Lt. Vincent Perez and Firefighter-Paramedic Anthony Valerio, who died from injuries they sustained while fighting a house fire last week. --Zoe Corneli

4 p.m.: A procession of at least 50 fire trucks will be heading to Holy Cross cemetery in Colma. A significant section of Highway 280 will be shut down. Click here for a map of the expected road closures.

3:50 p.m.: Mourners begin to leave the cathedral. A bagpipe player leads the funeral procession out of the church:

The bagpipe Player Leads the Funeral Pocession Out of the Church

3:45 p.m.: Archbishop George Niederauer leads the final prayers of the funeral service.

3:44 p.m.: Firefighters stand, put on their hats and salute as a ceremonial bell is rung. 

3:40 p.m.: Mayor Ed Lee and Chief Joanne Hayes-White present badges and helmets to the family members.

3:30 p.m.: A moving speech from Vincent Perez's brother, Alex Perez, who is an Oakland police officer. "Make no mistake, these men are gladiators," he said. "They fight fire, one of the most powerful forces created by God, to save lives."

"To my brother: Now you are free. I will see you again, but not yet. Not yet." 

Alex Perez spoke of the hours his brother spent hanging out and "clowning around" on the corner of Cortland Avenue and Bocana Street in Bernal Heights.

Vincent's pride and joy was his perfectly restored 1951 black and silver-blue Lincoln with suicide doors, Alex said. He would "load friends into his car, and hit the Mission — or as we called it, La Missión — for a cruise," Alex said.

After his brother died, Alex went to the firehouse and introduced himself. "I needed to see who my brother went to battle with," he said.

"All my life I’ve heard how I look, act and talked exactly like my brother," Alex said. So when he encountered one of Vincent's former colleagues, both men broke down crying.  "My brother went to battle with the best of the best," Alex said.

"There will be an investigation, and people will want answers," he said. But "I know Engine 26 was properly trained, and they were ready for that mission."

3:17 p.m. Maryleen Perez, sister of Lt. Vincent Perez, takes the podium. She calls the fallen firefighters "true heroes."

3:10 p.m.: Longtime friend Brian Hager recalls Valerio's sharp, off-beat sense of humor. Once, two young women at the airport couldn't find their suitcases on the luggage belt. Valerio quipped: "Wow, how often do you see that? Women without baggage."

Hager listed Valerio's many adventures and accomplishments. He was a fluent French speaker, glider pilot, scuba diver, master sourdough bread baker (Hager said he and his wife continue to bake with Valerio's sourdough starter every week), world traveler, sailor and avid runner. Valerio could often be seen running across the Golden Gate Bridge, Hager said: "He’d be the one in the short shorts and down jacket running through the fog."

2:55 p.m.: Mark Valerio takes the podium to share memories of his brother, Anthony Valerio.

The firefighter-paramedic would talk to anyone, Mark Valerio said. "You couldn't help being his friend."

"Tony died doing something he loved, and surrounded by people who loved him," his brother said. "As long as we remember Tony, he will never be gone."

2:45 p.m.: Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White is speaking now. "I really feel like the city is a family, particularly this week," she says.

After giving numerous acknowledgments to everyone from the medical team at San Francisco General Hospital to the Board of Supervisors, the chief gives a "special message" in "imperfect" Spanish to the Perez family.

She concludes with a prayer from St. Francis.

2:28 p.m.: Lt. Tom O'Connor, president of the San Francisco firefighters' union, takes the podium. "There are no words that can even begin to do justice to the sacrifice that has been made," he says.

O'Connor gets the attendees laughing with personal stories about the two fallen heroes. "Tony had quite the gift for gab," he recalled of Valerio. "Tony cold talk, and Tony could talk, and when he was done he could talk some more."

O'Connor told a story about Valerio talking so much once while surfing that a fellow firefighter said, "I never thought I would pray for a shark attack, but I would like one now." Valerio just kept talking as if nothing had happened.

Perez, on the other hand, "had the ability to not listen to a story." He would say, "Uh huh, uh huh, is that right. And he would give a little nervous laugh," O'Connor said. Once, a colleague asked him: You didn't hear a word I said, did you? And he responded: "No bro, sorry, you guys just aren't that interesting."

O'Connor says Perez was a "fireman's fireman — big, strong, aggressive and one of the best." A former Marine who liked to work on cars, "if there was a fire, Vince was the one who was going to put it out," O'Connor said.

Valerio, on the other hand, was "a ponytailed hippie who called himself the people’s paramedic." An urban chicken farmer who loved yoga, "he was like Mother Theresa with a siren," O'Connor said.

2:25 p.m.: Capt. William Storti of Station 26 is speaking now. He thanks the providers of a massive donation of pizzas: "We'll be eating pizza well into July." On a more serious note: "We loved your sons, and they will always be with us," he says. 

2:20 p.m.: Lee calls out the medical staff at San Francisco General Hospital who fought to save the firefighters. He also lists the many elected officials who have shown support.

2:15 p.m.: San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is speaking now. 

If this is a crushing blow for our "city family," he says, it is impossible for us to imagine the crushing blow to the families of the fallen firefighters. Addressing the city's emergency responders: "I want to express our city's immeasurable gratitude for all that you do."

2:05 p.m.: Funeral attendees who are Catholic are now taking communion. None of the political figures scheduled to speak at the services have done so yet. 

1:40 p.m.: Vincent Perez's brother, Lucio Perez, a San Francisco police officer, was too overcome with emotion to speak. His other brother, Alex Perez, an Oakland police officer, did a reading instead, in Spanish. Jacqueline Valerio-Samsel, Anthony Valerio's sister, also spoke.

1:10 p.m.: Mourners stand and "Amazing Grace" is sung as the firefighters' caskets are carried to the front of the cathedral. 

12:45 p.m.: Bagpipes are playing as the caskets make their way down the to the church.

This video by The Bay Citizen's Hadley Robinson shows the caskets being carried into the church:

Casket

12:40 p.m.: The caskets just arrived in a fire truck, draped in flags. The thousands of emergency responders who are gathered on the street and plaza leading up to the church have fallen silent.

12:15 p.m.: San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee just arrived.

The police are getting people off the street, and firefighters, who've been congregating in the plaza in front of the church, are starting to line up on the street. Police on horseback are already lined up on the street in anticipation of the caskets' arrival.

All along the plaza in front of the church, hundreds of uniformed emergency responders — sheriffs, firefighters, police paramedics and even a group from the trauma unit at San Francisco General Hospital — are waiting for the caskets to arrive.

There's a group of students from Archbishop Riordan High School, Lt. Vincent Perez's alma mater.

It's a somber reunion, with firefighters from all over the state greeting old friends and colleagues with hugs and handshakes.

12 p.m.: Tom O'Connor, president of the San Francisco firefighters' union, has arrived at the church. He's scheduled to speak at the funeral.

11:30 a.m.: There are now about 50 fire trucks lining Geary Boulevard. They have come from Orange County, Reno, Modesto, Los Angeles and elsewhere. 

11 a.m.: Hundreds of uniformed firefighters and paramedics have filed into the plaza in front of St. Mary's Cathedral, preparing to salute the fallen firefighters' caskets. The funeral services are scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m. The streets are lined with about a dozen fire trucks, which are mostly from San Francisco. A busload of firefighters just arrived from Pierce County.

The Bay Citizen's Hadley Robinson reports on the scene outside the cathedral:

Gathering before funeral

Flags around the city have been flown at half-staff this week in honor of Valerio and Perez, and Coit Tower has been illuminated in red since Tuesday night:

Coit Tower

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