A Nature Lover and a Natural Comic

October 11, 2001

He had tackled tenement fires in Harlem and chemical spills in Queens for his living, but Thomas Gardner spent his days off teaching children for free at the Bronx Zoo.

The Haz-Mat Co. 1 firefighter earned a college degree in biology and education during his 17 years with the New York City Fire Department and planned a second career as a high school science teacher.

"His first love was science and nature and animals," Gardner's wife, Liz, said from their home in Oceanside, where Gardner, 39, had an occasional job as a substitute teacher before joining Haz-Mat Co. 1.

As a single man, Gardner had nursed injured birds back to health as a member of Volunteers for Wildlife in Huntington. That hobby gave way to fatherhood, and Amy, 9, and Christopher, 6, are keeping only frogs at home right now, their mother said.

Gardner had specialized training on a spectrum of toxic threats, including anthrax, and flew to many parts of the country teaching law enforcement agencies to handle those dangers.

A hockey fan, he played the game in Long Beach with a lifelong group of friends from all over Long Island.

He also had a gift for comedy. Before joining the fire department, he worked briefly as an administrative assistant for NBC, and sold jokes to Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and Henny Youngman.

Haz-Mat Co. 1 friend John Larocchia is himself a standup comic who had begun a radio show on Bellmore's tiny WGBB. Gardner played his straight man on the show.

The two had just finished a treatment for a TV comedy on firemen.

Gardner had endured building collapses, burns and other firefighting injuries during 12 years with Engine Co. 59 in Harlem. Firefighters in Squad 288, which shares a Maspeth firehouse with Haz-Mat Co. 1, had been pestering him to join them because of his experience. On Sept. 11, 18 people were lost from those two companies, the worst losses in the department citywide.

"He felt a tremendous amount of guilt being in Haz-Mat, because they don't go to fires - he was always struggling with whether he was in the right place," Liz Gardner said. "He was always the person that people went to to help solve a problem."

In addition to his wife and children, Gardner is survived by his parents, Margaret and Alfred Gardner of Flushing; brothers Joseph of Flushing and Fred of Phoenix; a grandmother, Rose Borrelli, three nieces and one nephew. A memorial service is being planned for next week.

-- Elizabeth Moore (Newsday)