NEW YORK—In the end, the family of firefighter Lieutenant Gordon Matthew Ambelas had the last word, not the fire that took his life. On Thursday, the wife and two young daughters of 40-year-old Ambelas, who was a 14-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, celebrated his life in Staten Island at the Church of St. Clare. Ambelas died fighting a fire in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on July 5.
Surrounded by thousands of others—including firefighters, friends, family, elected officials, and the public—Ambelas’s family saw to it that he was remembered and honored with admiration, adoration, love, and humor.
“Whenever someone dies, everyone wants to say, ‘wow, they were so great,'” said Ambelas’s wife, Nanette Ambelas, during the memorial service. “With you, this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.” During the funeral, her close friend, Margaret Gulliksen, who had introduced Nanette to her husband, delivered Nanette’s speech.
“You didn’t just take care of us, you loved us,” said Nanette. “You saved me; I wish you could save me now.”
Though the speech was full of emotional, loving sentiments, there were also moments of levity. Nanette described a man who loved “the simple things in life,” such as fishing, camping, jet skiing, golf, and spending time with his family, including his two daughters, Gabby and Gia. Ambelas, who was there to help pick up the pieces after 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, was also a heavy metal fan.
“Every time I hear Metallica or Black Sabbath, I will think of you,” said his wife. She then recounted a story about one of his other loves: blackjack. The recollection made laughter bubble up from the packed church. “I remember the last time we went to Las Vegas. I couldn’t have loved you more when you kept winning.”
Her most important words for her husband were of thanks.
“I wanted for nothing in life because I had you,” she said. “Most importantly you were a hero to me and our girls.”
In addition to Ambelas’s closest family and friends, approximately 8,000 other people attended the hour-long funeral, though most waited outside in the hot sun or sat in an auxiliary live video room. The vast majority were firefighters from around the country, including Boston and Maryland, and NYPD officers. Dress blue uniforms, shiny black shoes, white gloves, and white and black hats stretched into the distance down the street in front of the church as far as the eye could see.
According to a 45-year veteran firefighter from New Jersey who is responsible for memorial details and services in his district, the scale of the memorial service was likely exactly what the family asked for. The firefighter, who declined to give his name, said fire departments work very closely with the family to create the type of remembrance that they want. They also stay on standby to give support of all kinds.
“We take care of the family from the time they find out to the time they have the burial,” he said. “We’re there for everything. Anything they need. We keep watch.”
A New York City fire department emergency medical technician, who also declined to give his name, said he has personally experienced that close support when a firefighter dies. After his firefighter father passed away a few months ago at 32 years of service with the FDNY, there was immediate help, and more.
“They’re still helping us, and it’s two or three months later,” he said. “It’s a brotherhood. It’s tradition.”
Others at the funeral had words of fond remembrance, too. Monsignor John Delendick, who led the service, recalled small details about Ambelas that made him unique.
“Meek doesn’t mean weak, because Matt was not weak,” said Delendick. “He wasn’t a weak person, but he was humble, very humble. He never wanted the spotlight on himself.”
Delendick pointed to Ambelas’s reaction after being dubbed a hero for his help with the May rescue of a young boy in an orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.
“There were all these people cheering for him—he was so embarrassed,” said Delendick, who added that though “we are all in mourning,” it is important to keep memories of all kinds alive.
“If he had a fault, it was one fault: he was a lousy businessman,” he said to laughter. “He tried to start a 99 cent store and it fell through.”
Numerous elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, Public Advocate Leticia James, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, NYC Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, and others also came to pay their respects. Several members from the orthodox Jewish community also stood outside of the church for hours.
De Blasio started the service by lauding the role firefighters play in the life of the city.
“Every hero mirrors the time and place in which he lives,” said de Blasio. “His life embodied the values that we as New Yorkers cherish the most. He was hard working; he put the team first, always.”
The service ended as an honor guard carried Ambelas’s coffin to a waiting fire truck, followed by his widow and two children. The family stopped outside the church as Ambelas’s firefighter helmets from his two former firehouses were put on the heads of his children, and his wife Nanette wept audibly.
“I always used to say sleep with the angels,” Nanette’s speech during the funeral had said. “And now you are.”
The Life of Lt. Ambelas
- Firefighter Lt. Gordon Matthew Ambelas
- Nickname: Went by the name Matt
- Age: 40 years old
- Hobbies: Fishing, camping, jet skiing, golf, blackjack, and spending time with his family
- Family: Survived by wife Nanette and daughters Gabriella and Giovanna
- Favorite Music: Metallica and Black Sabbath
FDNY: A History of Sacrifice
- Firefighter Lt. Gordon Matthew Ambelas was the 1,144th New York City firefighter to die in the line of duty since the department was founded in 1865.
- The last member of the FDNY to die while on duty was Lt. Richard Nappi, on Apr. 16, 2012.
- Organized firefighting started in New York in 1648 when the first Fire Ordinance was adopted by the Dutch Settlement of New Amsterdam.
- The FDNY protects more than 8,000,000 residents in an area of 320 square miles.
- There are more than 11,400 fire officers and firefighters
- There are 2,800 emergency medical technicians, paramedics, and supervisors assigned to the Bureau of Emergency Medical Service.