BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Firefighter William N. Tolley moved to the sounds of a rumble: the roar of his tower ladder rig and the growls of death metal, twin passions born in his teenage years and forged into night-and-day careers.
Outside his funeral at St. Martin of Tours Church here on Thursday, several thousand firefighters listened to more somber resonances: to the whine of bagpipes, the rattle of snare drums and the thrashing of helicopters in formation. And to the silence, when the death of a fastidious fire partner and a father to 8-year-old Isabella was felt by row after row of men and women in blue.
“He was a hard-core rocker and also a firefighter with a baby seat in the back of his minivan,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his eulogy, quoting a friend’s description of Firefighter Tolley, who died on duty with the New York City Fire Department. “Talk about range.”
He was a member of three firefighting companies and a death metal band. His passions drove him to trade in the plastic mask and oxygen tank of his childhood, becoming a 42-year-old with a real-life candy-red rig who drummed at sold-out shows.
They all came out on Thursday: his metal band, Internal Bleeding; Hicksville Fire Department Heavy Rescue 8, where he first learned search and rescue; Bethpage Fire Department Ladder Rescue 3, with its tomcat mascot and “Anytime Baby!” slogan; and the Myrtle Turtles of New York City Fire Department Tower Ladder 135, named for the Myrtle Avenue fire station in Queens.
A 14-year veteran of the city Fire Department, Firefighter Tolley had been in a bucket at the top of Tower Ladder 135’s extendable arm, ventilating the roof of a five-story Queens building last Thursday, when he plummeted to his death. Witnesses said the bucket appeared to move before he fell, and investigators are trying to determine the cause of the fall. The blaze itself was the result of incense that residents had left burning in their second-floor apartment.
Two ladder trucks — No. 3, from Bethpage, and No. 135, from New York City — rolled up Central Avenue here ahead of drummers beating a slow, steady beat, as far from death metal as can be. Across the street from the church, a man in a brick home parted his curtains and lifted his window to listen.
Firefighter Tolley’s wife, Marie, and their daughter, Isabella, stepped out of a van, the little girl’s sandy hair swallowed by a fire cap and her hands clasped around a blanket woven with an image of her father’s face. After the service, a firefighter would step out of formation and hand her a black helmet bearing the number 135, and Isabella would carry it away, the blanket wrapped around her waist like a kilt.
PhotoMarie and Isabella, 8, the wife and daughter of Firefighter William N. Tolley, at his funeral in Bethpage, N.Y.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times
Firefighter Tolley kept rhythm at his fire station and on the stage, and he tended to do it loudly. Jarrett Kotarski, a firefighter with Ladder 135, recalled that Firefighter Tolley used to shop at fire expositions and online for special parts, like “some crazy siren from Brazil that was illegal in America for making people deaf.”
But Firefighter Tolley showed a gentler side as a member of the Fire Department’s ceremonial unit. Since he joined a little more than a year ago, he had polished rigs to help prepare for the funeral of a retired firefighter who died of cancer, and herded colleagues marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in honor of the 343 Fire Department members who died on Sept. 11.
He turned out for his colleagues at the city’s most trying moments, including on Sept. 11 when, as a member of the volunteer Hicksville force on Long Island, he drove down empty highways toward ground zero after seeing smoke from his fire station’s roof and then used thermal imaging devices to search the ruins. His colleagues turned out for him on Thursday, with police officials estimating attendance at around 10,000, some of them firefighters from as far as California and Florida.
All the while Firefighter Tolley was recording music and getting ready for an Internal Bleeding tour.
Mourners marveled at how, through stints at FedEx and early days getting paid to clean up a Hicksville fire station, Firefighter Tolley had become the unlikely embodiment of many boys’ most far-fetched fantasies.
“The number of young children who dream of one day being a firefighter is far too high to count,” said Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro. “The number of teenage boys who hope one day to go from playing the drums in their garage to touring the world as a rock star is equally high.”
But his biggest dream was to raise Isabella, and mourners spoke of helping see that dream through.
Robert Tolley, a military veteran, recalled telling his younger brother to stay safe so he could come home every day to his daughter.
“And now that he cannot come home to see her, I will do so, and all his 5,000 brothers in the department will do so,” he said.
Mr. Kotarski made the same promise, his voice cracking as he spoke to the girl: “You got lucky, because now you are going to have 40 overprotecting and overbearing dads behind you all the time.”
The day of his death, Firefighter Tolley had gone shopping for a cake for Isabella’s First Communion. It will be held this weekend in the same church where he was sent off.