By Murray Schneider
More than 50 family, friends and fellow fire fighters released more than a hundred balloons above Fire Station 26 at noon on Sunday, August 14th to remember the 54th birthday of San Francisco firefighter and paramedic, Anthony Valerio.
The red, yellow, blue and orange balloons sailed to the left of both the American and California state flags that flew over the firehouse. Some nestled in the branches of an adjacent pine tree before escaping to the east, carried away by an afternoon Diamond Heights breeze.
The last time such a number of people gathered in front of the fire house, on June 6th, the two flags waved at half-staff in honor of Tony Valerio and his fallen comrade, Vincent Perez, both taken in a tragic June 2nd Berkeley Way home fire.
On June 6th people had grieved; two months and seven days later they returned to celebrate a San Francisco hero’s birthday.
“My brother never forgot anyone’s birthday,” said Jacquie Samsel, Valerio’s younger sister, as she assembled smiling celebrants in a circle. “He was fun-loving and loved life.”
With the released balloons floating toward Noe Valley, participants broke into a rendition of Happy Birthday.
Moments later, around cookies and cupcakes, people reminisced about a man they remembered as the ‘Peoples’ Paramedic.’
“Tony was always rescuing somebody,” Donna Valerio, another sister recalled. “Once on an airplane the flight attendant called for a doctor and Tony jumped from his seat and assisted a man with gastro-intestinal pains.”
“Another time,” she continued, “in Monterey, where he was scuba diving, he pulled a man from the ocean who’d been attacked by a shark.”
“Tony had a sense of humor, though,” she smiled. “Answering an emergency call, Tony listened to a man complaining he passed out when he stood. So Tony told the man not to stand up.”
Janette Neves-Reyes, a ten-year SFFD veteran, knew Valerio for a brief six months. “Tony crammed more in one year of life than most people do in a lifetime,” she said. “Once we were called to a Diamond Heights kitchen fire. When the French couple thanked Tony, he answered them in French. Before we left they’d baked us French chocolate cookies.”
Valerio was a man for all seasons, people recollected. He surfed, hang-glided, scuba dived, cooked, spoke several foreign languages with fluency and even raised chickens in his Excelsior backyard.
“We’d have to shackle him down,” smiled Neves-Reyes. “Tony would talk to anybody.”
“Tony was just a nice guy,” said Bill Walkup, his brother-in-law. “There was a French lady in the neighborhood who’d come to the firehouse and Tony would speak French to her so she’d wouldn’t get homesick.”
“Off duty, once,” Valerio’s sister Donna recalled, “he got into his scuba gear and cleaned the Steinhart Aquarium’s fish tanks.”
Marina Valerio remembered her 50th birthday, which took place in 2009. “I was born in Italy where my father was stationed,” she reflected. “Tony asked me what I wanted and I said I wanted to see Verona. Tony took me, on his dime. It was the best experience of my life.”
Frank Valerio, Tony’s father, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, assessed his son’s life. “He was a good kid who grew up into a good man.”
Willie Cassillas, who has been in the fire department for 20 years, remembered Velerio. “Tony was the happiest firefighter of us all,” he said, “He was a fantastic paramedic, saving lives in every corner of the city.”
“Tony was a gentle soul,” Neves-Rivera chimed in. “When my blood sugar got too high while on duty, he’d lay out alcohol and diabetic sticks and test me.”
“He had a simple rule, the Golden Rule,” Casillas added. “Tony assisted stricken people exactly in the way he thought he’d like to be helped.”
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White released a balloon and stood reminiscing about Valerio with his siblings and parents.
“Tony will be missed,” she said. “He was an upbeat man with a talent for bringing us all together.”
Evidence of this abounds and isn’t lost on Neves-Rivera. “The neighbors have been so great,” she said. “Throughout August, each Tuesday and Thursday, they bring us dinner.”
Agreeing with the Fire Chief and her sister firefighter, Valerio’s younger brother, Mark, recalled. “Tony brought out the best in people,” he said. “Lining the streets at his funeral, homeless people came out of nowhere.”
Tony’s sister Jacquie has created a photo site to honor her brother. You can see it here.