City's Hail to the Chief: FDNY Bids Farewell to its Top Hero

by: Simon Crittle and Todd Venezia,, 12/16/01

With the pomp and ceremony of a state funeral, the FDNY's top brass gathered yesterday to wish a final farewell to Chief Ray Downey, the department's most decorated member, who died during his final act of heroism Sept. 11.

The nationally recognized expert on disaster recovery was hailed as one of the department's brightest lights and greatest leaders - and as a father and grandfather who loved his large family.

"I feel everyone had a purpose in life and dad's was purely evident on Sept. 11," said Downey's eldest son, Joseph, himself a New York fire captain.

"Throughout his life, and especially on that day, he was willing to lead by example and give it all he had. After the south tower came down - without hesitation - he returned to the collapse to help as many people as possible."

The 63-year-old Downey was head of the FDNY's renowned Special Operations squad. He pioneered innovative approaches to overcoming major disasters and building collapses.

He was so revered by younger members of the force, some even called him called "God." Much of Downey's fame came from helping in rescue efforts after both the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He has frequently lectured on recovery efforts and even testified before Congress.

"I don't think anybody else in the whole country is that well-prepared [as is New York], and Ray was one of the main reasons for that," said Mayor Giuliani, who addressed a crowd of more than a thousand at Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Deer Park, L.I.

It was a funeral that came off only after special security precautions, including a bomb sweep of the church and the posting of police armed with assault rifles throughout the area.

"It took the biggest attack that was ever carried out on American soil, toppling the largest office buildings in the world, to take down Ray Downey," said Gov. Pataki.

"I've come to realize a very important thing: They'll never be a New York City Fire Department without Ray Downey."

Downey was also the patriarch of a large family. He is survived by his wife of 40-years, Rosalie, and five children: sons Joseph, Chuck and Ray Jr., and daughters Marie Tortorici and Kathy Ugale. He also had seven grandchildren.

His wife, who did not speak at the ceremony, wrote in a message contained in a funeral booklet: "Ray was an extraordinary individual."

"My children, grandchildren and I were blessed to have Ray in our lives. He was an adoring poppy, devoted father and loving husband. He will always be our hero and now he will be my guardian angel."

Firefighting ran in his large family. In addition to Joseph, son Chuck is lieutenant in the Special Operations Division and his brothers, Gene and Tom, are both retired firefighters.