Under a heavy and unseasonal rain, more than 100 firefighters in full garb and full salute stood in silence Saturday morning.
For the second time in less than two days, a flag-draped coffin was wheeled out the doors of San Francisco General Hospital with the body of a member of Engine Company 26.
Firefighter and paramedic Anthony “Tony” Valerio died Saturday at 7:40 a.m. Valerio, whose partner Vincent “Vinnie” Perez, 48, died almost immediately after an explosion of heat overwhelmed the pair in a blazing, two-alarm Diamond Heights house fire Thursday morning, had been in critical condition for almost two days.
It is the first time since three firefighters died in the July 30, 1946, Herbert Hotel fire that more than one of The City’s bravest lost their life in a single blaze, according to the Fire Department Museum website. The last line-of-duty death came in 1995.
Dr. Andre Campbell, who led the effort to save the 53-year-old, said the outlook was dire from the start, with Valerio in full cardiac arrest when he was first brought to the hospital midday Thursday. The battle to save his life was “a roller-coaster,” Campbell said, with some conditions improving periodically as others deteriorated. Throughout the ordeal, friends, family, doctors, and fellow firefighters stood by.
“This was a minute-by-minute struggle for his life,” Campbell said. “From the time he got hurt to when he died — and we lost. [The injuries were] just too overwhelming, and we couldn’t bring him back.”
Valerio’s sister, Jackie, spoke about her brother’s penchant for living at an upbeat pace.
“He was full of life,” she said. “He traveled. He was a great uncle to my kids. He was, as I always say, my best brother ever. I looked up to him.”
She added that Valerio “is watching [down] on all of us, and I think he would want all of you to remember him as that happy person always telling jokes.”
Mark Valerio, Anthony’s brother, recalled his brother’s enthusiasm for traveling, experiencing the outdoors and surfing — a sport at which Anthony Valerio tried once to teach his younger brother.
“It didn’t work out too well for me,” he said with a laugh.
Anthony Valerio, his brother said, bore a reputation for showing up underdressed to family gatherings, often in his beachgoing outfit of shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. And during family dinners, jokes would fly in Anthony’s presence.
“He was a great brother,” his brother said. “I can’t even think about life without him right now.” Mark Valerio said his family often ate at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach.
“Now we’re going to be thinking of that place not as Tony’s Pizza but as Anthony’s Pizza,” he said. Plans for a memorial have not been announced.
How a modest-size house blaze in Diamond Heights on Thursday blew into a tragedy that killed two firefighters and injured a third remains the cause of a Fire Department investigation and a source of shock and sorrow for the rest of the department, Chief Joanne Hayes-White said Saturday.
“What’s extremely difficult for us is that this was a single-family dwelling,” Hayes-White said outside San Francisco General Hospital, where Anthony “Tony” Valerio died Saturday morning. “It was not a high-rise. It was not something that one would typically expect to have two fatalities out of.”
A final determination of the cause and origin of the fire remain under investigation and, Hayes-White said, will likely take at least two weeks to determine. She said that the nature of the building layout — which appears from the front to be a two-story home but actually includes two lower levels on the back side — added a degree of difficulty, and she noted that winds Thursday were low and the fire “internal to the building.”
Valerio and fellow firefighter Vincent “Vinnie” Perez were among the first to arrive at the blazing home on the 100 block of Berkeley Way. Inside, a “flashover” — an oxygen-fueled blast of extreme heat — is believed to have overwhelmed them.
“They made the initial attack not knowing they were going to face what they faced,” Hayes-White said.