By Sophia Chang
Under a clear winter sky Friday, thousands of firefighters from as far away as California paid their last respects to their fallen comrade, joining mourners at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Huguenot, Staten Island. Sclafani was killed Jan. 23 when he was separated from fellow firefighters from Ladder 103 while investigating a fire in East New York, according to the Fire Department. The 37-year-old was found in the basement staircase, unconscious and in respiratory arrest, and died that day from his injuries at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn. Earlier the same day, another fire in the Bronx forced six firefighters to jump out a fourth-story window to escape encroaching flames. Two firemen died from injuries sustained in the fall, including Lt. John Bellew originally from Howard Beach. Flushing native Brendan Cawley of Ladder 27 was also critically injured jumping out the building but was discharged from the hospital Saturday.It was the department's highest death toll in a single day since Sept. 11, 2001.”Last Sunday was a day that numbs the senses and broke our hearts,” said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta at Sclafani's funeral. “It left seven families and the department devastated.”During the standing-room only service, Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined Scoppetta, Sclafani's sister JoAnn Asch, and two firefighters from Ladder 103 and Engine 290 in honoring the fireman, a native of Astoria who had lived in Bay Terrace for four years. The funeral was held near the Staten Island home of his mother, Joan Sclafan.”We are here to mourn but also to celebrate Richie,” Bloomberg said, as he paid tribute to Sclafani's courage, loyalty and compassion.Among Sclafani's qualities, Bloomberg said, was the scope of his “phenomenal” intelligence that included completing the difficult New York Times crossword puzzles in ink. He left an outsized legacy as well, the mayor said.”Richie was a huge presence at the firehouse, and they joked about his big biceps,” Bloomberg said. “Some of the firefighters even stuffed pillows down their sleeves.”Lt. Louis Rufrano of Engine 290, located in the same firehouse as Ladder 103, said Sclafani would host all-night poker games at his Bell Boulevard apartment and was a “tough guy who turned into a teddy bear when he played with his dog,” a Boston Terrier puppy named Mugsy. “Bro, we are proud to know, honored to have worked with you, and heartbroken to have lost you,” Rufrano said in a choked voice. Sclafani's sister JoAnn Asch tearfully read from a letter she had written about her brother.”My brother is my other half,” Asch said. “He is my strength when I am weakand my friend when I'm in need.”And though he knew of the Bronx fire casualties before heading out to the Brooklyn fire, Sclafani still gave his last mission his all, Bloomberg said. “He would run through a wall to save someone, which he did that Sunday even with the knowledge of the terrible tragedy that took place earlier that day.””He absolutely lived for the action,” he said. “He was the first one to plunge into danger. Most of us run away from danger, but our bravest and finest run towards danger.”Bishop Robert Brucato said “all the uniformed services, down to the newest recruited firefighters, you are well appreciated, appreciated all the more in an event like this.”Bloomberg asked the mourners to remember Lt. Curtis Meyran and Lt. John Bellew, who both died in the Bronx fire, as well as the four critically injured firefighters.”On behalf of 8 million New Yorkers, our deepest sympathies go to their families,” he said.The streets outside the church were lined with nearly 9,000 firefighters in dress uniforms. As Sclafani's casket was loaded onto the Ladder 103 truck and slowly borne to the nearby Cemetery of the Resurrection on Sharrott Avenue in Staten Island, white-gloved hands flew up in salutes like so many doves lifting off.Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.