New York City mourns 'hero' firefighter

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NEW YORK (AP) — Purple and black bunting hung from the firehouse. Firefighters embraced and wiped away tears. Neighbors, grateful for the man they recently called a hero and stunned by his sudden death, stopped by to say farewell.

Sorrow permeated the New York City neighborhood Sunday where Lt. Gordon Ambelas worked, echoing from Ladder 119 and Engine Company 211 — where he heard his final call Saturday night — to the public-housing high-rise where he was overcome with smoke and flames while searching for possible victims in a cluttered apartment.

As the news spread of the fire department's first line-of-duty death in more than two years, fellow firefighters congregated with community leaders at the firehouse in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood to grieve together and share their remembrances.

"He died a hero — that's how he lived," firefighter, friend and former roommate Eric Bischoff said. Ambelas, he said, was "truly one of the best human beings that anyone would ever want to meet."

Fire officials said Sunday that a preliminary investigation showed a pinched electrical cord in a cluttered apartment started the blaze on the 19th floor of the 21-story building. Flames quickly spread to the 17th and 18th floors. Ambelas was among the first firefighters in the building.

Fellow firefighters found Ambelas unconscious and carried him out of the building. They worked with emergency rescuers to try to revive him, but he died at a hospital, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Smoke inhalation and thermal burns caused Ambelas' death though the manner is still under investigation, a spokeswoman for the city's medical examiner said Monday. Fire officials declined to detail what transpired in the apartment leading up to his death, citing the ongoing investigation.

A funeral was planned for Thursday morning at St. Clare's Church on Staten Island.

Ambelas, a 40-year-old married father of two daughters from Staten Island, had been promoted to lieutenant 10 months ago. Throughout a 14-year career he helped the city through its darkest hours, including the recovery from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Superstorm Sandy.

In May, months after a transfer to Williamsburg, Ambelas helped save 7-year-old Mendy Gotlieb, who became trapped in a roll-down gate. The boy was pulled 15 feet off the ground when his arm and head got stuck. Two weeks ago, the local Orthodox Jewish community honored Ambelas and his Ladder 119 comrades for their heroics.

Ambelas said at the time that the incident "shows that FDNY members are always ready to help others. It was great teamwork all around."

The boy is being raised in the neighborhood's Satmar Hasidic Jewish community, and members of a local synagogue put up fliers mourning Ambelas' death on Sunday.

"The entire community's heartbroken and saddened," Rabbi Lieb Glanz said.

Mendy's family said in a statement that Ambelas was Mendy's "savior."

"He literally sacrificed his life for others," the family said. "I hope that his family finds solace in the many lives that are living on because of him. May his family have no more sorrow."

A light smell of smoke hung in the air outside the building Sunday as investigators went about their work and residents came back.

Steven Jimenez, 15, had been returning from a cookout to his ninth-floor apartment when he saw flames in a 19th-floor window. As he waited outside, he watched as a bandaged Ambelas was carried out, he said.

"It looked scary ... and it was scary that it happened in my neighborhood," said Jimenez, who ultimately spent the night at a friend's home.

Ambelas, whose fellow firefighters called him Matt, was the first New York City firefighter killed on duty since Lt. Richard A. Nappi died fighting a Brooklyn warehouse blaze in April 2012.

A police officer, Dennis Guerra, died this April after he and his partner were overcome by smoke and carbon monoxide while responding to a mattress fire on the 13th floor of a Coney Island public housing complex.


Associated Press Radio Correspondent Julie Walker contributed to this report.

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