One was a former Marine with a strong law-enforcement pedigree and an insatiable appetite. The other could often be found on a surfboard, earrings and ponytail garnering him a reputation as a hippie.
From the outside, the two men seemed completely different. But both shared a common passion — saving lives as members of the San Francisco Fire Department.
On Thursday, they gave themselves to The City. Vincent “Vinnie” Perez, 48, and Anthony “Tony” Valerio, 53, were horribly injured in a flash of flames inside a Diamond Heights home.
The blaze started on the ground floor of a four-story home on a steep hill, and spread to at least the second story, Lt. Mindy Talmadge said. But from the home’s front, firefighters could only see the third and fourth stories, which forced them to enter above the flames.
Fighting fires in San Francisco is difficult — particularly near Station 26.
“It’s especially difficult in the Twin Peaks area, where houses are basically upside-down,” said Tom O’Connor, president of Firefighters Local 798. “You have to approach a fire by going on top of it.”
While fighting the blaze, one firefighter’s personal alarm activated, Talmadge said. The alarm sounded right after what firefighters described as a “flashover,” a sudden burst of fire that occurs as oxygen is let into a superheated room.
Additional firefighters had to carry Perez and Valerio out on stretchers. A third, female firefighter also was injured but able to exit without help.
All three were taken to San Francisco General Hospital, where Perez died and Valerio fought for his life into the night. The third firefighter, whose name was not released, was discharged in fair condition.
The scene at S.F. General was tense and emotional. Dozens of firefighters in full gear lined up and saluted Perez as his flag-draped body was wheeled outside on a gurney. His mother was so distraught that she couldn’t view her son’s body.
Perez, a former Marine, had served as a jailer at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department before becoming a San Francisco firefighter in 1990.
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, who attended the same fire academy class as Perez, praised his dedication.
“His whole life was dedicated to serving the community,” she said. “Our hearts are heavy today.”
Perez first fought blazes in the Mission district, where he was born and raised. Two of his brothers also work in public safety, as police officers in Oakland and San Francisco.
Fellow firefighters used to call Perez “Creature” because he would get up late at night and rummage around the station refrigerator looking for food. “He’d eat dinner before dinner, and dinner after dinner,” O’Connor recalled. “He’d have five meals a night.”
Valerio is a veteran paramedic with a passion for medicine. He cross-trained as a firefighter after paramedics were transferred to the Fire Department in 1997.
When he isn’t working, he’d be surfing or kayaking the beaches of Pacifica. Despite thinning hair, the free-spirited veteran never shed his ponytail.
“They couldn’t have been more different, like the odd couple,” O’Connor said.
Mayor Ed Lee visited with their families before coming out to speak with reporters. His voice quavering, he struggled to speak.
“This reminds all of us how dangerous this job is, and how appreciative we are of people who put their lives on the line,” Lee said.
Lt. Vincent A. Perez
Service: Lieutenant at Engine Company 26. Former Alameda County jailer. Planned to retire soon.
Home: Born and raised in Mission. Attended Riordan High School.
Personal: The unmarried firefighter was his mother’s primary caretaker. Two brothers are police officers.
Anthony M. Valerio
Service: Firefighter-paramedic at Engine Company 26.
Home: Attended El Camino High School in South San Francisco.
Personal: An avid surfer and kayaker. His ex-wife also works as a San Francisco firefighter.
“This reminds all of us how dangerous this job is, and how appreciative we are of people who put their lives on the line.”
— Mayor Ed Lee
“It’s especially difficult in the Twin Peaks area, where houses are basically upside-down. You have to approach a fire by going on top of it.”
— Tom O’Connor, president of Firefighters Local 798
“Our hearts are heavy today.”
— Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White
Duty calls for colleagues
A visibly distraught firefighter at Station 26 struggled Thursday evening to hide his reaction to the fate of his colleagues. But he declined to discuss the tragedy because he and his fellow firefighters were too busy working to fulfill their duty by reopening their station.
The Station 26 fire crew responded Thursday morning to a one-alarm blaze in the 100 block of Berkeley Way. The aggressive fire, located roughly a half-mile away, quickly spread into a two-alarm blaze.
Four residents in the home, including three teenage girls, had escaped the fire by darting through a garage, a witness said. But firefighters Vincent Perez and Anthony Valerio rushed in to battle flames they would not escape.
The two firefighters and a third unnamed colleague were pulled from the fire.
Perez was the first San Francisco firefighter to die in the line of duty in eight years. In 2003, Melinda Ohler died after falling off an engine on the way to a blaze. And the last firefighter to die in a blaze, Louis Mambretti, also hailed from Station 26, dying while battling a 1995 blaze on Everson Street.
The flag above Station 26 and City Hall stood at half-staff Thursday, but the loss of Perez was felt throughout The City.
“Our thoughts and our prayers go out to their families,” Supervisor Jane Kim said.
-- Andrea Koskey and Joshua Sabatini