Hundreds of Rochester firefighters and other mourners gathered Wednesday morning to remember Elvis Reyes, who died last week from apparent complications from surgery related to an on-duty injury.
A light rain fell as his colleagues stood in formation in their dress uniforms outside the Blue Cross Arena in downtown Rochester. Streets in the area were closed, and a large American flag was raised over Exchange Street, hanging between two ladder trucks from the Rochester Fire Department.
Reyes, 54, was a Rochester firefighter for 20 years and received numerous commendations for his volunteer work, his support of recruitment efforts and his life-saving work last summer at the Summerville Pier and in Long Island, Nassau County and Suffolk County after Hurricane Sandy. He was also honored for training firefighters in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic and spent time bringing fire equipment to Puerto Rico.
Large portraits of Reyes were surrounded by flowers on the arena's stage, and his fire helmet and turnout gear sat in front of the podium where speakers stood to share their memories and reflect on their loss.
Colleagues remembered Reyes as a skilled and dedicated firefighter.
“On a fire scene, they didn’t come any stronger,” said Lt. Joe Hogan, a friend and longtime RFD colleague. “He could lift a 25-foot ladder like it was a toothpick and ventilate a roof with the best of them.”
But more than anything, Reyes was remembered for his infectious spirit. Friends and colleagues described Reyes as a “gentle giant” and “larger than life,” a person whose primary focus was on his family and building community. They all recounted how his fun-loving personality and constant smile made an impact wherever he went.
“His joyful, genuine and charismatic personality charmed everyone who met him,” Hogan said. “What other city can say that a 6’7” Puerto Rican was the face of our St. Patricks Day parade.”
Hogan was one of several speakers at the service who recalled Reyes’ love for dressing up and performing, whether it was the kilt and green wig he wore for St. Patrick’s Day, or the sequined outfit he wore to sing like Freddie Mercury.
“No matter the occasion – a birthday, a family picnic, a holiday – you were sure to find Elvis in a costume and a wig.”
'Elvis was the glue'
Dan Bell, a longtime neighbor, described what happened when Reyes moved into a house across the street from him in one of the city’s northeast neighborhoods.
“His impact was immediate. Neighbors became friends, transitioning from distant waves across the street to hugs,” Bell recalled. “We raised our kids together. We played and ate and drank together. We grieved together, we celebrated together, and Elvis was the glue.”
Reyes had a natural ability to bring people together, Bell said, always trying to include as many as people as possible.
“He was inclusive in the broadest possible way. He wanted everyone to participate, have fun, learn, and be the best they could be. He was always helping, coaching, teaching, loving, and laughing,” Bell said. “Because in a family and a community we are all better when each of us is better.”
Reyes served in the fire department with his brothers and two of his sons. The oldest, Remington Reyes, said Wednesday that his father always joked that “RFD” stood for “Reyes Fire Department.”
Speaking to the large crowd gathered in the arena, Remington Reyes said it was very humbling to see how many people his father had impacted.
“It’s breathtaking to see how many people are here and how many lives my father touched,” he said. “I always heard the term 'brotherhood' but I never fully understood what that meant, sadly, until now.”
'A hero to us all'
Tony Ortega said Reyes, his cousin, was never afraid to be himself and make those around him laugh.
“He was hilarious, a comedian whose humor brightened the lives of those around him.” Ortega said. “We can all learn so much from his ability to simply enjoy every day and ensure those around him did the same.”
Ortega said that Reyes had been an inspiration to him and countless others, and called on those who mourned his death to continue his legacy of service and commitment to family and community.
“Elvis was a hero to us all and we all just wanted to be just like him,” Ortega said. “The void of his passing has left something we all have to work together to fill. Even though he is gone it is comforting to know that his roots will be a part of us forever and shared to the generations that follow”
Reyes served at several firehouses during his career, according to the Rochester Fire Department. He worked at Engine 13/Truck 10 on Allen Street , as well as Ridgeway (Engine 10) and Dewey (Truck 2). At the end of his career, he worked in Charlotte at Engine 19.
Rochester Fire Department Chief Felipe Hernandez Jr. described Reyes as "an outstanding, dedicated firefighter who was very committed to serving the community."
"We will always remember him for his great smile and the positive energy he brought whenever he entered a room," he said.
Reyes is survived by his three sons Reid, Remington and Roman, two of whom followed their father's footsteps to become Rochester firefighters; parents Melbil and Angela Reyes, brothers Ricky and Robert Lee and numerous other relatives and friends.
Calling hours were held Tuesday at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside and Reyes' laid in state overnight at the Public Safety Building.
His final resting place will be in the First Responders Section of Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on Lake Avenue.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Elvis Reyes, Rochester NY firefighter, funeral to be held Wednesday