Fallen San Francisco firefighters bid farewell by thousands of mourners 

Nine rings of a bell — the chaplain’s call — echoed through somber space at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Friday as thousands gathered to honor the lives of two San Francisco firefighters who died last week battling a blaze in Diamond Heights.

The caskets of Lt. Vincent Perez, 48, and firefighter-paramedic Anthony Valerio, 53, were placed beside each other at the altar, where they were covered in a white cloth, topped with helmets from Engine Company 26.

Rev. John Greene, the department chaplain, began the homily of the nearly four-hour service by saying that firefighters do almost everything together — they work, eat and sleep together.

“And sometimes we die together,” Greene said. “And sometimes we are buried together.”

An estimated 5,000 firefighters from around the nation and Canada stood for hours outside the church as they waited for the flag-draped caskets to be carried there atop No. 26 fire engines. The jovial sounds of old friends chatting quickly gave way to complete silence as the engines pulled up to the curb below a massive American flag hung between two fire ladders.

Bible readings at the Mass focused on service and sacrifice, including the famous story of the good Samaritan who saved a dying man on a road when others had simply passed.

“We go out that door not knowing what we will find, and not knowing what we will really face,” Greene said. “They never pass by ... they are always there to help, to encourage, to rescue, to fight what needs to be fought.”

Mayor Ed Lee and fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White spoke at the service, which was attended by Gov. Jerry Brown, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and former Mayor Gavin Newsom. Lee said the men made the “ultimate sacrifice for our city.”

Perez and Valerio were portrayed by friends and family as having completely different personalities — one reserved and professional, the other eccentric and talkative.

Valerio — the renaissance man fond of surfing, cooking, flying, sourdough bread baking and scuba diving — will be remembered for his informal style that he used to diffuse any tense situation he encountered. Brian Hager, his best friend and former co-worker, said they would work long shifts together on up to eight ambulance calls per day, but they mostly saw it as an adventure, and one that was well worth enduring the low pay.

“The paycheck was only a bonus,” Hager said.

Perez, eulogized by his sister Maryleen, may have seemed gruff and indifferent at times, but his professional distance should not have been mistaken for a lack of compassion.

“He was a man of few words at times,” she said. “So if any of you wonder if he loved you back, yes, he did.”

Perez’s brother, Sgt. Alex Perez of the Oakland Police Department, said despite whatever results come of an investigation into the fire, his brother should be proud to have achieved a lifelong dream of joining the San Francisco Fire Department.

“People will want answers ... they will question decisions that have to be made in a split second under the most dangerous circumstances,” he said. “But these are gladiators ... they fight fire, one of the most powerful forces created by God, to save lives.”

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com

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