We talk a lot about heroism. And we can argue about whether superstar athletes and noisy politicians and even pundits fall in this category. But we can’t argue about the heroism of men and women who put their life on the line every day to help others. The funeral of 40-year-old New York City Fire Department Lt. Gordon Matthew Ambelas served as a reminder to us all of what heroism really means. The fallen FDNY firefighter defines heroism. Lt. Ambelas, a 14-year FDNY veteran, was overcome by flames and smoke searching for survivors in a high-rise fire in Williamsburg on Saturday, July 5. An estimated 7,000 firefighters from New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and Canada put on their dress blues and white gloves and came to Staten Island to mourn one of their own. They stood silent and still, in some places eight deep, shoulder-to-shoulder, on one side of the narrow stretch of Nelson Avenue that leads to St. Clare’s Church in Great Kills. Two fire trucks from houses where Lt. Ambelas worked led the funeral procession, followed by the Emerald Society Pipes and Drums wearing traditional kilts. They played a rhythmic dirge on drums covered in black and after them came firefighters who flanked the fire truck that carried the American flag-draped coffin of Lt. Ambelas. In the church, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave the first eulogy. He said, “A historian wrote some years ago, ‘Every hero mirrors the time and place in which lives. He must reflect our innermost hopes and beliefs in a very public way.’ And that was certainly true of Matt. His life embodied the values that we as New Yorkers cherish most.
“He was very hard-working. We honor that hard work. He was dedicated. He was a man for whom diligence came easily. Dedication was pervasive in him. And through his hard work he won the rank of lieutenant. “
The loss is difficult for the FDNY and the city at large, but it is tragically personal for his widow Nanette and their beautiful daughters, eight-year-old Gabriella and five-year-old Giovanna. Nanette Ambelas asked a friend to read the eulogy she wrote for her husband. Margaret Gulliksen read the description of his warm, loving relationship with Mrs. Ambelas and their daughters and then read perhaps the most poignant lines, “How am I supposed to breathe without you? Who will pick me up when I fall?” Mrs. Ambelas wrote. I hope Nanette Ambelas and her daughter find their way. Even deep in their tragedy they have a head start on many. Our real heroes pick us up when we fall and often provide the inspiration and courage for the rest of us to make our own way. It sounds like Lt. Ambelas did that and more for his family and the city. Next time someone mentions the word hero, think about Lt. Gordon Matthew Ambelas.