More than 200 firefighters formed a somber procession Tuesday night in honor of Joseph Sanford Jr., a longtime Inwood volunteer who died in the line of duty.
Inwood firefighters led the long line of white-gloved mourners, marching a few blocks from their firehouse down Wanser Avenue to Our Lady of Good Counsel.
They passed a giant American flag held aloft by ladder trucks and, two by two, walked through a color guard to enter the church for Sanford's wake.
A 17-year veteran, Sanford died Dec. 23 of injuries sustained while battling a raging house fire in Woodmere. He had been on a ventilator for several days, surrounded by family.
"He paid the ultimate price and sacrifice for the things that he signed up to do," said former Inwood chief Richard Magliaro, who has known Sanford since middle school.
Magliaro called Sanford an "outstanding fireman, outstanding father, husband, friend -- you name it, put him at the top of the list."
"You have to come out for a person who volunteers and ends up surrendering their life," said Chris Peoples, 48, a cousin of Sanford from Largo, Florida.
Officials said several thousand firefighters attended the service.
Sanford, 43, was one of several Inwood firefighters who joined efforts to search the Woodmere home in teams during the early morning fire on Dec. 19, officials have said. Volunteers from two other departments discovered him amid the basement rubble after a partial first-floor collapse.
Sanford, a former first deputy chief who worked for the Nassau County Public Works Department, was posthumously promoted to chief.
"It's just something that had to be done," said Inwood Chief Anthony Rivelli. "This is a big jolt, not only to the Inwood Fire Department, but to . . . the community."
In Sanford's honor, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano ordered flags on county buildings to be flown at half-staff until Jan. 30.
Diane Tyler of Inwood, a former neighbor, recalled how Sanford celebrated the holidays by dressing as Santa. She said he and his wife, dressed as Mrs. Claus, would ride atop a fire truck and hand out candy to local kids.
At the church Tuesday, Tyler said she hugged Sanford's wife, Jacqueline. "I told her God has her in his arms, so just take it day by day because God is going to get you through this."
Sanford's funeral will be held this morning at Our Lady of Good Counsel. Burial will follow at Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale.