Billy Tolley was remembered as an adoring father and husband, a passionate metal drummer and a dedicated firefighter at a Long Island funeral service attended by thousands on Thursday.
The 14-year FDNY veteran, killed on the job while battling a fire in Queens last week, leaves behind a wife Marie and an eight-year-old daughter, Isabella, nicknamed Bella.
Firefighters from around the country began lining the street outside St. Martin of Tours in Bethpage in the morning, and a solemn procession to the church concluded with Tolley's casket being unloaded from an FDNY truck.
Hundreds of family, friends and firefighters filled the church for the funeral service. Among the speakers were Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro.
Father Patrick Woods, presiding over the service, told mourners of the painful, touching conversation Marie had with Bella after Tolley died.
"As courageous and as brave as any firefighter who rushed into a burning building, Marie, a loving mother carrying her own crushing grief, gently tells Bella that Billy has gone home to God," said Woods.
"And Bella, as wise as any ancient philosopher, says, 'Mommy, Daddy's too young to die.' And Bella, as vulnerable as any innocent eight-year-old girl can be on the eve of her first Holy Communion, says, 'I have no daddy.'"
"In the numbness of her pain, this is what Marie told Bella: 'You know, Bella, your daddy loved to help people. That's what firefighters do. They help people. And your daddy was a really good man at helping people,'" said Woods.
Woods said when he asked Bella what she loved to do with her father, she replied, "I loved to play the drums with him and go for chocolate ice cream."
Tolley played the drums in a death metal band he founded 25 years ago with his best friend Chris Pervelis, called Internal Bleeding.
The pastor and the mayor both told of how Tolley, determined to make his daughter's first communion perfect, looked into getting a cake in the form of cross-shaped cupcakes, a story the bakery owner next to the firehouse related to News 4 last week.
A member of Tolley's firehouse told of how excited Tolley would get about firefighting gadgets and contraptions, and described Tolley as the ultimate fire "buff" who always tried to recruit others to go with him to fire expos. He told of learning Tolley's side pursuit in music.
"He tells me, 'Oh yeah, I'm a drummer in a band,'" said Jarrett Kotarski. "I'm like, 'Wow, like a cover band?' He's like, 'Nah, I do original stuff... it's kind of hard to explain, let me go get my CD.'"
"He pops in the Internal Bleeding CD, and uh, wow, to say the least," Kotarski said as peals of laughter broke out inside the church. "Billy was kind of a squared-away guy, always had his hair cut the right away, uniform proper, the guy drove a Honda Accord with his volley license plates, and yet he's this famous drummer in this insane metal band."
Kotarski said Tolley was a proud father, happily putting up Bella's artwork on his locker and asking fellow company members to weigh in on Disney princess dresses.
"Billy, we're your brother and just like in the firehouse, we got you," he said in tears. "Bella's our little girl now, and we're gonna take good care of her for you."
Addressing Bella, Kotaski joked, "You got lucky because you're going to have 40 overbearing and overprotective dads behind you now."
Tolley's older brother Robert also spoke movingly of growing up with Billy as "best friends," recalling how he wanted to be a firefighter even as a young boy.
"The day he called me to let me know how his number had been called up by the department, up until that point, was the greatest day in his life," he said.
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro vowed the FDNY family will "now and forever" be there for Tolley's family.
"We will never forget Billy. We will honor him, we will remember all the good he did, and we will watch over his family always."
De Blasio said to Bella, "You'll never have to wonder about his character, what he believed in, how he used his life on Earth. You will know he was a hero and it will sustain you."
Before Tolley became a firefighter with the FDNY, he worked as a volunteer firefighter on Long Island. He rushed to ground zero on Sept. 11 from Hicksville, and two years later, joined the FDNY. He also volunteered for Make A Wish, spending time with sick kids.
In the days following the tragedy, the loss has been acknowledged with bunting outside Tolley's firehouse, Ladder 135, and with moving tributes by those who knew him best.
"Bella and I and our entire family are trying to get through this together," Tolley's widow Marie said outside the firehouse Monday after the Stephen Siller Tunnels to Tower Foundation announced it would pay off the mortgage of her family home. "We want to thank you from the bottoms of our hearts."
"I know Billy would be so grateful and proud because he loved this job," Tolley said in tears.
The FDNY Foundation, which is affiliated with the department, has set up an educational fund for Isabella.
Tolley was the 1,147th FDNY firefighter to die in the line of duty.
Investigators are still trying to determine what caused Tolley to fall to his death. Tolley was working on ventilating the burning building when he fell. Fire marshals said unattended incense left in a second-floor bedroom caused the fire.