A Private Hero
Farewell to a firefighter who loved and honored family life

By Katie Thomas
STAFF WRITER

May 21, 2002

When the family of Raymond Downey learned last week that his remains had been identified in the rubble of the World Trade Center, they envisioned a simple funeral to honor the man they knew as a husband, father, brother and grandfather.

"We want a simple and dignified Mass," Downey's son, city fire Capt. Joseph Downey, said last week.

Yesterday - though the crowd of mourners at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Deer Park included political luminaries such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lt. Gov. Mary Donohue, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Robert Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - the focus was on Downey as a family man.

Downey, 63, was a deputy New York City fire chief and headed the department's Special Operations Command. Thousands attended a memorial service for him in December, at which he was eulogized as a firefighter so revered that colleagues sometimes called him "God," a man whose expertise in building collapses gained him international renown.

Next month, the post office in Deer Park, his hometown, will be named for him, and he has received numerous other posthumous honors and medals.

But despite Downey's fame, the Rev. Frank Gaeta urged mourners yesterday in his homily to remember Downey's private acts of heroism. "He has a post office named after him," Gaeta said. "He didn't want to be canonized, he wanted you to imitate his life."

Gaeta said Downey drew much of his strength from his wife, Rosalie Downey. "The sacrament of marriage was the absolute core of who Ray Downey was," Gaeta said. Addressing her, he said, "You were in his heart every single moment. Every act of heroism and charity that he performed, you were next to him."

Downey's daughter, Kathy Ugalde, is weeks away from delivering her first child. "I'll never be able to see my father hold my baby in his arms," she said during her eulogy.

Ugalde, the youngest of five children, joked that her father spoiled her. When she left school because she was sick, she said he always took her to McDonald's or Burger King for a treat. Though she said she wasn't as great an athlete as some of her siblings, "He was good at letting you know he was proud of you," she said. "He just gave you that nod."

After the service, hundreds of firefighters mingled in the church driveway while family members headed to his burial at St. Charles Cemetery in East Farmingdale. Fire Lt. Danny Murphy said their numbers - by his estimate 600 to 700 people - were small compared with other funerals. In contrast to Downey's memorial service in December, Murphy said only those who knew Downey were encouraged to attend yesterday.

"He's responsible for the career path of a lot of guys here," said Murphy, who himself was hired by Downey when Downey headed Brooklyn's Rescue Company No. 2, an elite unit that rescues firefighters.

Some firefighters said they had begun to worry whether Downey's remains would ever be retrieved. He was last seen inside the Marriott Hotel, after the first tower - the south tower - had collapsed. Citing the family's wishes, the fire department has not said where or when his remains were found.

"I think everybody was a little surprised," said Murphy. "That he was found and he finally came home is the thing that brings a little peace to everybody."

During her eulogy, Ugalde told the crowd that she had prayed for the day when her father's remains would be found. But "when I knew I had to speak today, I realize that I'm not really sure if I'm ready."

Now that he has been identified, "It's really bizarre that I'm supposed to be happy and relieved," she said. "My family has joined the lucky of the unlucky."

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