This story was reported by Laura Blasey, Alison Fox, Mark Morales, Michael O’Keeffe and Ellen Yan. It was written by Blasey.
When William Tolley did something, he usually did it with a smile.
It didn’t matter if he was playing the drums, putting out fires or taking care of his 8-year-old daughter — he found pleasure in each moment, family members said.
Tolley, 42, of Bethpage, died Thursday after falling from a five-story building at the scene of a fire in Ridgewood, Queens.
The FDNY firefighter leaves behind distraught family members, friends, colleagues and fans of his music.
Many who didn’t know him as a firefighter knew him for his 20-year career as a drummer in a band with a devoted following.
“We’re totally devastated,” said his stepfather Frank DeCillis, of Tampa, Florida. “I was closer to him than I was to my own sons. . . . He was loved by everybody.”
Tolley grew up in Lindenhurst, DeCillis said. He delivered newspapers as a boy, his mother, Marie DeCillis, said, and he received his first drum set at age 6.
Tolley wrote in his biography on the band’s website that his interest in music “kept him out of trouble during his teenage years.”
While a student at Lindenhurst High School in 1991, Tolley and friends formed a death metal band, Internal Bleeding. The band put out five albums and a series of demos and was due to begin a new national tour in May, DeCillis said. Band manager Mark Muller said bandmates considered Tolley the “heartbeat” of the group.
“There are ZERO WORDS to describe the loss. He was a good, decent and honorable man who loved his friends, his family and the people he served,” band founder and guitarist Chris Pervalis said in a statement. “There will never be another like him.”
Tolley leaves behind his daughter Isabella and wife Marie. The FDNY Foundation immediately set up a fund for Tolley’s daughter’s education.
When he wasn’t touring or in the recording studio, Tolley worked as a firefighter. He was a 14-year veteran of the FDNY, most recently assigned to Ladder 135 in Glendale, Queens.
Kate Sullivan, 37, who owns K&A Bar next to the firehouse, said Tolley always maintained a good attitude about his job and shared his love of music with others. She, Tolley and a group of friends attended a punk concert last week.
“When you work in that line of work, you have to embrace life for whatever days you have it,” she said. “You never know when you’re not coming back.”
On Long Island, Tolley served as a volunteer at the Hicksville Fire Department starting in 1997 before moving on to the Bethpage Fire Department in 2011, officials said. He was assigned to Ladder Company 3.
Those who worked with him remembered him as a big-hearted colleague who loved fighting fires.
“Conversations with him would last three hours,” Hicksville fire dispatcher Christopher Valero said.
Hicksville Fire Capt. Doug McDonald said Tolley took time to mentor other firefighters.
“Billy lives for the fire department. He was a fireman’s fireman,” McDonald said. “We’re all a family and today we lost a brother.”
In Tolley’s Bethpage neighborhood, two neighbors — one wearing an FDNY cap — lowered the U.S. flag on the fallen firefighter’s lawn to half-staff. Another left a bouquet of flowers in front of Tolley’s modest, one-story home.
Tolley had bonded with several New York City firefighters who lived nearby. Neighbors said he was a familiar figure in the community, talking with a cigar in his mouth or walking his daughter to school.
Michael Gleason, whose parents are the firefighter’s neighbors, knew him as “the snowblower guy.” After it snowed, he said, Tolley would take out his snowblower and clear not only his neighbors’ driveways but his street and the streets nearby, working sometimes for hours.
“I always asked him ‘Look, you’re a firefighter. Doesn’t that make you nervous?’” Gleason recalled. “He said, ‘No. I love being a firefighter. I can’t be afraid to go to work.’ ”