Story and photos by Murray Schneider
June 2, 2012
One year to the day that Lt. Vincent Perez and Firefighter/Paramedic Anthony Valerio lost their lives combating a Diamond Heights house fire, an estimated throng of nearly 300 family, friends, neighbors, firefighters and police officers spilled from Station 26 on Digby Street to observe a moment of silence and to dedicate a memorial garden to both them and the memory of Lt. Louis Mambretti who perished in a fire on Everson Street in 1995.
The day began overcast, but by the time Captain Anita Paratley, who was assigned to E 26 six months after the tragic 133 Berkeley Way fire, stepped up on the porch overlooking a garden designed by landscape architect Elise Tilson, the sun had peeked between clouds that had earlier blanketed the neighborhood.
“Lou, Vince and Tony served valiantly,” said Paratley, a 23-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department. “They will always remain in our hearts.”
Only moments before, Paratley had extended thanks to her fire chief, her command staff, her division and battalion support, Supervisor Scott Wiener, and the Diamond Heights Shopping Center, which had underwritten the memorial garden.
Tilson’s work boasts three ornamental cherry trees in honor of the three fallen firefighters. Two stone benches and a granite fountain surround a bed of river rocks that anchor a landscape replete with plants and shrubs such as ceanothus, fuchsia, laurel, yarrow and trumpet vine.
“It took weeks and weeks to complete this,” said Elise Tilson, gesturing to the carpet of vegetation. “I had great helpers, but they were too shy to come today.”
Looking out over the garden, which now frames a panoramic view of downtown San Francisco, Paratley said:
“The view is worth a million dollars but the garden is priceless.”
A firefighter presented Jeanette Oliver, manager of the shopping center, with a bouquet of flowers.
“I am struck by the fact that gardens represent a stand against chaos and disintegration,” Oliver subsequently said, with an eloquence matching the funeral eulogies for Perez and Valerio voiced from St. Mary’s Cathedral on June 10, 2011. “It is exactly right,” she continued, “that a garden should represent the memory of firefighters, who dedicate their lives to preserving the order and harmony of our community.”
There was nothing disorderly about the ceremony that preceded the garden’s dedication. At the exact time of day Perez and Valerio entered a burning building perched on the slopes of Glen Canyon one year ago, on June 2, 2011, Paratley called her nine member E 26 Company to attention and asked for a moment of silence.
“Present arms,” she commanded. “At 10:58 windows failed and that is when the tragedy began.”
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White joined the column of E 26 firefighters, which was observed by the parents and family of Anthony Valerio, the mother of Vincent Perez and the widow of Louis Mambretti.
Standing at attention before a fire truck, E 26 firefighter Tami Turner rang three somber sets of three bells, each in memory of Perez, Valerio and Mambretti, which is also a call to a SFFD fire chaplain.
“These men will always be remembered,” said Father John Greene. “They made the supreme sacrifice.”
The moment’s solemnity continued as the company of firefighters remained in military formation. Then Paratley’s voice echoed:
Exactly one year ago, minutes after they entered a home where a fire raged up the rear of the building, overcome by extreme heat, Perez and Valerio were found down, their protective breathing apparatus and their helmets both compromised. Carried to the sidewalk, they were given immediate medical attention and then rushed to San Francisco General Hospital.
The event rocked San Francisco and, even a year later, has a lasting resonance. Paratley now faced the standing room only crowd. She looked out at her firefighting brethren, a mix of pride and sadness writ large upon her face. “I want to thank E 26,” she said. “They remained strong when they were fragile.”
She paused, again surveying her comrades. ‘They’re still going strong.”
In the garden, visitors began strolling its perimeters. Firefighters Janette Neves-Rivera and Kaeo Nacua set on a bench, embracing, remembering Perez and Valerio. A mother and her children set on another bench, remembering, too.
Earlier that morning Anthony Valerio’s family, using the medium of the San Francisco Chronicle, remembered, also: “It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since you passed……….You died performing your duty as a dedicated firefighter and paramedic. You are our hero.”
“I searched for appropriate thoughts,” said Paratley, “finally finding words John Wayne once said. Her audience waited, some smiling, the meditative mood broken by an image of the legendary celluloid hero astride his horse.
“Courage is being scared to death,” Paratley quoted Wayne, “and then saddling up anyway.”