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'A Risk We Choose': Emergency Workers Mourn One of Their Own
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Yadira Arroyo's coffin was carried into St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in the Bronx for her funeral Mass on Saturday. Credit Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

Five magenta balloons bobbed above a crowd of onlookers, near the white caps of uniformed chiefs arrayed along University Avenue in the Bronx. They were held aloft by five strangers, united in sadness for a fellow Bronx woman whom none had ever met, but each felt they knew.

Across the avenue, packed for a half-mile with navy-clad emergency medical workers, firefighters and police officers, the bells of a towering gothic revival church announced the funeral on Saturday for Yadira Arroyo, a Bronx-born medical worker who was killed in the line of duty on the same Bronx streets she had vowed to serve.

Inside the sanctuary, the 44-year-old woman whom nearly everyone called “Yari” was remembered as a fighter, a healer and a mother to her five sons and to all those who came to know and love her at Station 26, where she worked as an emergency medical technician, badge number 2017.

There, her captain said, she was “a rock.” At home, she was a friend and confidante, “the only person who truly understood me,” one of her sons, Jose Montes, recalled.

On the streets, Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his eulogy, her bravery was “her example” to family, co-workers and to all New Yorkers until the moment, on March 16, when she fought alongside her partner to take back their ambulance from a man who had seized control of the vehicle and ultimately used it to crush Ms. Arroyo to death.

“The hearts of our city are broken today,” Mr. de Blasio told the hundreds gathered inside and several thousand more listening under gray skies outside, where a large painted portrait of Ms. Arroyo stood near the ambulance that carried her coffin. “After years of heading toward the danger, the danger came to them.”

Her partner, Monique Williams, stood with Ms. Arroyo’s boyfriend, Phillip Villafañe, a paramedic, for a Bible reading during the Catholic Mass at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church, but she did not speak. Ms. Williams, who witnessed the killing, clutched her face with the white glove of her dress uniform as she was guided back to her seat.

Anger over the circumstances of Ms. Arroyo’s death coursed through the emergency workers assembled outside, who came from across the city — from Brownsville, Brooklyn to South Jamaica, Queens — and from as far away as Boston and Chicago. Some called it a tragedy; others murder. Many chafed over the fact that the man accused in her killing, Jose Gonzalez, 25, had been released on bail weeks before the fatal encounter.

PhotoA picture of Ms. Arroyo is carried into St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in the Bronx. Ms. Arroyo, 44, was on duty when she was killed. CreditAlex Wroblewski for The New York Times

“The way she passed was quite upsetting, and it would be nice if the judicial system would be able to better protect our first responders,” said a veteran firefighter from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who gave his name only as Chris. “There’s no way I would not be here.”

Within the Fire Department’s ranks of about 4,000 emergency medical service workers, Ms. Arroyo was the eighth medical worker killed in the line of duty in the past two decades, a spokesman for the department, Francis X. Gribbon, said. She accomplished in death what many on Saturday said she had also done in life: bringing people together to share pride in the often unheralded, but dangerous work of providing emergency medical help to those in need.

“That’s our life — you never know if you’re going to be coming home or not,” said Commander Frank Velez, a veteran paramedic in the Chicago Fire Department. “But that’s a risk we choose.”

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The service in the church included several readings by members of Ms. Arroyo’s large family as well as eulogies from Mr. de Blasio, the fire commissioner, Daniel A. Nigro, and her oldest son, Mr. Montes, 23.

“On the phone, she always had to have the last goodbye,” Mr. Montes said. “One day, I tested her. She says bye, and I say bye, and she says bye. Every time. I tried to get the last goodbye, she says bye, I say bye, she says bye, and I say bye real fast and hung up the phone.” He paused. “Then I get a text from her. It says: ‘Bye-bye.’”

As he finished, the hundreds assembled inside the church, which is known as the Cathedral of the Bronx, stood to applaud in a torrent of support for him. Ms. Arroyo’s aunt then read a message prepared by Ms. Arroyo’s mother, Laida Acevedo-Rosado, who stood tearfully beside her. Her message recalled her daughter’s childhood in the Bronx, surrounded by drugs, gangs and violence, which she overcame: “She saw sadness and sorrow so she became one who smiled.”

Outside, after the service, Captain Joseph Jefferson of Station 26 presented an orange helmet from the emergency medical service to Ms. Arroyo’s son Kenneth Robles, 19, who is studying to become a medical worker. “One of her sons is following in her footsteps and we’re making preparations to receive him at our station,” Mr. Jefferson said later. “He’ll actually work the unit that she was on.”

Ms. Arroyo’s coffin, draped in an American flag, was placed inside an ambulance from her station, one she might have taken to a call, but which was now adorned in black and purple bunting and bound for Woodlawn Cemetery. Overhead, flocks of birds swirled. A single police helicopter flew low over a sea of blue uniforms. And five red balloons floated to the sky.

“My heart told me to do it,” said Leticia Ruiz, 59, who bought and shared the balloons with the idea of releasing them when the coffin departed the church.

“She put her life on the line for everyone,” said Christine Henson, 62, as she stood next to Ms. Ruiz. “It’s a sign of love.”

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