Photos of Monday’s BBQ and community gathering at Station 26 on Monday, June 6. All photos by Chris Hardy.
By Murray Schneider
The American flag flew from the roof of Firehouse 26 at somber half-mast on June 6, 2011. Behind it were eight San Jose off- duty firefighters who had traveled to San Francisco to honor fallen firemen Vincent A. Perez, 48, and Anthony M. Valerio, 53. They stood over a lighted barbecue.
The South Bay firefighters traveled to Diamond Heights to show support for their San Francisco band of brothers on a grey Monday afternoon, wanting little more than to provide grilled chicken and tri-tip steak comfort food to grieving firefighters.
“The last thing you want to do now is cook,” said Al Pena, a 14-year SJFD veteran, as he wielded a spatula with the same skill he would fire rescue equipment. “This is a time to mourn.” Pointing to a bevy of darkened drumsticks, he added, “This is such a small part to play.”
Troy Taufer, a 14-year member of the Woodside Fire Department, who accompanied his San Jose brethren to Digby Street, echoed his comrade:
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to our two brothers and the community they served.”
Standing beside the barbeque, Jacqueline Samsel didn’t have to be told about brothers. She’d lost hers, Anthony Valerio, to the deadly two-alarm fire that enveloped a home at 133 Berkeley Street on June 2nd. “Tony was the best brother,” she said. “He was my idol and I told him so only a few months ago to remind him.”
Coming from a large family that was raised in South San Francisco, Samsel followed her brother at El Camino High School by five years, graduating from El Camino Real high school in 1980.
“Tony was the People’s Paramedic,” she said, with pride of her brother, who was also a surfer and bicyclist.
Having wended her way up circuitous Diamond Heights streets to pay her respects, Shelly Carroll, a NERT Coordinator Chair, stepped from the 35-Eureka. She held a condolence card that she presented it to Bill Rader, a 10 year SFFD veteran. “ Firemen are like family,” she said. “The loss of any is terrible, the loss of two is devastating.”
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White drove up in Carroll’s wake. She parked her command vehicle and walked toward the visiting San Jose firemen to thank them.
“Vinnie was the most capable officer I’ve worked with,” Rader said, a black ribbon shrouding his uniform badge. “He was a fine firefighter and always made light of things, making all of our days better.”
There was nothing light, however, about Lieutenant Vincent Perez’s last moments. “They were hellish,” said Rader, envisioning the inside of the burning building situated on the slopes of Glen Canyon. “It was completely black in there, hot and filled with thick acrid smoke.”
A few feet from Rader, standing beneath the cement firehouse only a block or two from Walter Hass Park, Brett Evart, with 23 years service to the people of San Francisco, seconded his colleague. “There was low visability in there,” he said. “Things deteriorated rapidly, quicker than they could react. It was an awful thing.”
Evart fished a Blackberry from his pocket and punched up a photograph of heroic Vincent Perez, a jogger, in his running attire. “Vinnie was a runner,” Evart said about the Mission District native son who participated in the annual SFFD’s Thanksgiving Turkey Trot run around Lake Merced. “He was a gentle man, and he’d help round out the firehouse team.”
Valerio was an athlete, too. “Tony and I rode bikes,” recalled Evart. “Tony always wore a Stars and Stripes jersey. He was a gentle and happy guy.”
Martin Mora, a 16-year fire fighting veteran in San Jose, and dressed in a sweat shirt to fend off the chilly June air, surveyed the hungry City paramedics hovering around the steel barbeque, which he topped off with homemade biscuits he brought from Silcon Valley. “They were our brothers,” he said, gesturing to a container of chili blistering over smoldering briquettes. “It’s a small token, honoring them and the community they served.”
A dog walker wandered past the hot grill.
Another designated San Jose chef, too busy forking slices of fragrant steak to identify himself, said: “No burgers or dogs. Only the best for the San Francisco fire department. My heart goes out to them.”
In her turn, Tony Valerio’s sister, Jackie, offered her own thoughts about a big heart and her big brother. “My brother lived life to the fullest,” she remembered, “and he gave the best advice to my son, Austin.”
Pausing a moment, she reflected on what 14-year old Austin learned from his uncle, a lesson all the harder to absorb after the tragic events of last week. “Tony always said,” his sister offered, “Never dwell on the bad things, just let them roll off your back.”