The remembrance of fallen FDNY Lt. Richard Nappi Saturday began with a question.
"What makes a person a hero?" Msgr. Daniel Picciano asked Nappi's young relatives at his Lake Ronkonkoma funeral.
"Selfless," said one child. "Lots of courage," added another.
Picciano said heroes were everyday people, like Nappi, "who have courage when needed . . . who are selfless when needed . . . and are willing to put their lives on the line."
Hundreds of mourners packed the pews and basement of the Church of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton while thousands more gathered outside in a final farewell.
He died Monday after apparently suffering a heart attack while battling a warehouse blaze in Brooklyn.
New York City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, who worked with Nappi at Engine 7 in Manhattan, said Nappi loved helping others and "being the guy that people reached out to when someone needed help."
Nappi was known to shovel snow for his elderly neighbors and take annual trips to the Sept. 11 memorial service at his alma mater, Iona College in New Rochelle, Cassano said. Nappi was even giving in his death, he said, by being an organ donor.
At the Mass, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg compared Nappi's stocky build and playful personality to that of the mascot at Engine Company 237 in Brooklyn, a bulldog named Mugsy.
"Rich loved a good time, but like a bulldog he was also all business" when training his firefighters, Bloomberg said.
"He kept them on their toes, constantly learning and sharpening their skills. He took every opportunity to put them through drills or take them to revisit fire scenes and unlock the lessons that could be learned there."
Bloomberg's voice cracked with emotion when he spoke directly to Nappi's wife, Mary Anne, and their children, Catherine, 12, and Nicholas, 11. The mayor said he, too, had lost his father at a young age.
"As time passed, what remained . . . was the wonderful memories that we had with the man we loved and I think that will be true for the both of you as well," Bloomberg said as people wiped away tears.
A 17-year veteran of the FDNY, Nappi was working in a firehouse in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. Though it was his day off, he rushed to the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks. He also assisted in the recovery efforts at Ground Zero, after which he developed breathing problems that caused him to take time off, said cousin Deirdre Connelly, 58, of Harrington Park, N.J.
Before joining the FDNY, Nappi had been a state parole officer and a case worker for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. He was also a 22-year volunteer with the Farmingville Fire Department.
Nappi grew up in the Fordham Road section of the Bronx, the youngest of three boys. Connelly, who grew up with Nappi, said he had a great sense of humor. "All the boys were pranksters," she said. "We're going to miss him."
Family members said he loved to talk, tell stories and play jokes on people.
Picciano recalled Nappi's nickname, "Yappy Nappi," and his favorite saying, "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story."
Nappi was remembered as a passionate fan of the Rangers and Mets. Cassano, also a Mets fan, recalled the time they were on duty during the 1998 championship parade for the Yankees. As fires broke out in balls of confetti, he said the pair were for a second blinded by team loyalty, joking, "let it burn."
"In the end, the joke was on us -- a couple of Mets fans putting out fires at a Yankee ticker tape parade," he said.
Earlier in the day, thousands of firefighters in dress uniform lined Portion Road in front of the church as small groups of local residents gathered on the sidewalk.
Suzanne Hughes, 39, who lives nearby, said she'd never been to a firefighter's funeral. "This is amazing," she said, taking in the scene. "But they deserve it. They put their lives on the line."