Pink balloons bearing the handwritten name of slain emergency medic Yadira Arroyo hovered in the air Saturday morning across from the Bronx Catholic church.
Leticia Ruiz had never met Arroyo, but was so inspired by her life that Ruiz stood outside St. Nicholas of Tolentine for more than three hours before Arroyo’s funeral Mass with the balloons and Ruiz’s daughter, 10, to pay respects.
“She had five kids. She was a very hardworking woman,” said Ruiz, 59, of the Bronx. “She didn’t deserve what happened.”
Only a fraction of the FDNY-estimated 9,000 mourners — some traveling from Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and Quebec — could fit into the pews of the granite ashlar neo-Gothic church. So a jumbo screen and loudspeakers carried the service live for those outside. Arroyo, 44, was remembered as a mom to five sons and mother figure to countless rookie emergency rescuers and veteran medics alike.
In the two-hour service’s only direct reference to the circumstances of Arroyo’s death, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro briefly mentioned the “dangerous individual” who “violently seized control” of Arroyo’s ambulance: a reputed gang member named Jose Gonzalez, 25, of Fordham Heights, who ran Arroyo over March 16 after a scuffle as she and a partner struggled to go tend to a pregnant woman in distress.
“In her final moments, Yadi was fighting for her patient. She was fighting to get her ambulance back so that she could continue on her call,” Nigro said.
According to the NYPD, Arroyo tried to pull Gonzalez from the driver’s seat, but he put the ambulance in reverse, running her over before driving forward and slamming into three cars and a snowbank.
“She died a hero,” Nigro said. “But more importantly, she lived as one.”
Arroyo became the eighth emergency medical worker to die in the line of duty since the ambulance service merged, in 1996, with the FDNY.
Murder and other criminal charges are pending against Gonzalez, who was denied bail and is in jail.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s eulogy said that serving others was “the nature of her heart” for the 14-year ambulance medic.
“We know her example lives on, and we know that her work lives on,” he said. “She protected. She served. She gave her all every day,” the mayor said.
Nigro called Arroyo the “perfect” first responder to answer a call for a pregnant patient in distress.
In a eulogy read by Arroyo’s aunt Ali Acevedo-Hernandez, Arroyo’s mother, Laida Acevedo-Rosado, said her daughter channeled hardscrabble roots into caring for the sick and injured, and volunteering to feed the hungry at soup kitchens.
“She was not afraid to do what’s right. Yadi grew up in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, surrounded by gangs, drugs and violence. You know what those neighborhoods are like,” the aunt said at the pulpit, as the author of those words wept at her side. “It was not easy for her.”
Arroyo’s eldest son, Jose Montes, recounted a few of his mom’s lessons during his 23 years: cooking, listening, singing, embracing people different from oneself, being true to himself.
“She taught me to be happy, no matter what people think of you, ’cause you’re the only one who can live with you,” Montes said.
Arroyo, he said, always wanted to say the last goodbye. He joked that the two once traded goodbyes over the phone until he hung up believing he’d gotten the last one in — only then to get a text message from his mom: “Bye-bye.”
“My mom didn’t prepare me for goodbyes too well,” he said.
After an honor guard carried a flag-draped coffin with Arroyo’s body from the church, placing her into an ambulance, Nigro, with the mayor, and his wife, first lady Chirlane McCray, presented a letter of appreciation to Arroyo’s weeping mother. Arroyo’s boss, Capt. Joseph Jefferson, gave Arroyo’s helmet to her son Kenneth Robles, 19. He is studying to be an emergency medical technician, following in his mother’s footsteps.
Arroyo was to be cremated and interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
As the ambulance left to the sound of a bagpipe dirge, Leticia Ruiz and her family let go of the pink balloons, and Arroyo’s name floated away from the place she served for 14 years.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave the wrong last name for Arroyo in the penultimate paragraph.