Long Island

FDNY Firefighter Who Fell to Death Remembered Widely as ‘Kind,' a ‘True Gentleman'

William Tolley was a father of an 8-year-old girl, a death metal band drummer and a "true gentleman" by all accounts

Hours before he fell to his death while battling a fire in Queens, FDNY firefighter William Tolley had gone to the cupcake shop next door to the firehouse to ask about getting cupcakes in the shape of a cross for an upcoming communion. 

He spoke to the owner of Mahalo Bakery, Sunita Shiwdin, at about 12:30 p.m. and told her he'd back.

He never returned. 

Tolley -- "Billy," as Shiwdin knew him -- was a frequent visitor at the bakery, and always kind and great with kids, including her nephew who was often in the store, she said.

"He was like, 'Do you want to go in the truck, buddy?'" she recalled Tolley telling her nephew. "He was just so nice and caring and very affectionate toward children. That's the Billy I know." 

It's not clear whose communion he was preparing for, but Shiwdin now wishes she'd stopped and talked with him more Thursday. 

"It's unbelievable that he went to work, and he didn't come home to his wife and his daughter," said firehouse neighbor Donna Nielsen. 

The 14-year veteran of the FDNY who lived in Bethpage, Long Island, died Thursday after falling several stories while containing an apartment fire in Ridgewood. He was working on ventilating the apartment building when he fell five stories to the ground below.

Fire marshals says unattended incense left in the bedroom of a second-floor apartment caused the fire. 

Tolley, who was a senior firefighter at Ladder 135/Engine 286, leaves behind a wife and an 8-year-old daughter, Isabella Tolley. 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. 

“Anyone who puts on a uniform like that and goes out there and is willing to protect people, not even just their family but people they don’t know, they’re heroes,” said Jack Rewkowski, Tolley’s neighbor on Long Island. 

Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Tolley's death is a "terrible tragedy for the department." 

A bunting ceremony at Ladder 135 was held in Tolley's honor Friday evening. The ceremony was a somber one, with firefighters and residents holding back tears as the black and purple bunting was placed over the entrance to the firehouse. 

William Aaron, a firefighter at Ladder 135, was at the ceremony. Holding back tears, he said he and Tolley called each other Willie. He said the late firefighter loved his family, the band he was in and "this job, which we take for granted every damn day. We don't realize how dangerous it can be at times. But he loved it and he loved it like it was his own brother." 

Flags were at half-staff across New York City, and neighbors showed up at the firehouse throughout the day to drop off flowers and pay their respects. One woman who didn't speak English fluently was emotional and crying as she kept saying "hero." 

Members of the FDNY parked their fire trucks along overpasses of the Long Island Expressway Friday afternoon as a procession was underway to move Tolley's body from Manhattan to Bethpage, where residents and firefighters had gathered along a thoroughfare to honor their neighbor as his body was taken to a funeral home. 

"He was a true gentleman," said Owen Magee, who worked with Tolley at the Hicksville Fire Department, one of the two Long Island fire departments where Tolley volunteered for some 20 years. 

Tolley played the drums in a death metal band he founded 25 years ago with his friend Chris Pervelis, called Internal Bleeding. He loved to talk and needle his bandmates and everyone else in earshot, said Pervelis, who called him a brother. The two friends spoke every morning at 8:55, a cherished routine that came to an abrupt and unexpected end Friday.

"I rolled around this morning and I couldn't handle it," said Pervelis. "I feel like my insides have been ripped out." 

The wake for Tolley will be held at Chapey and Sons Funeral Home in Bethpage next Tuesday and Wednesday. Funeral services will be held at St. Martin of Tours in Bethpage next Thursday morning. 

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