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Tony Valerio’s niece grateful to fellow firefighters’ support

By: Stephanie Dumm News Messenger Reporter
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I don’t even know where to begin with this column. Being tasked to write a column about by uncle Anthony “Tony” Valerio’s June 4 death is a daunting one at best. Not only was he the best uncle ever to my brothers, Austin, 16, and Jared Samsel, 14, but also based on the outpouring of love from the entire San Francisco Fire and Police Departments, he was a damn good paramedic/firefighter and an even better friend. My Uncle Tony was killed due to injuries sustained while fighting a house fire last Thursday in San Francisco’s Diamond Heights neighborhood. A flashover occurred while my uncle, Lt. Vincent Perez and an additional firefighter responded to the scene. “A flashover is when all of the room’s contents reach their ignition temperature all at once, when they burst into flame,” Lincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt explained. Perez died that day, the female firefighter was treated and released for minor injuries and my uncle stayed with us, though in a coma, until he succumbed to his injuries Saturday morning at 7:37 a.m. Our entire family was in the room, including his six siblings, parents, ex-wife, myself, two of his nephews, as well as San Francisco’s fire chief and two other members of the fire administration. I got the call that my uncle had been injured the same afternoon and made it from Lincoln to Roseville in record time so I could ride down to the city with my mother, who is Tony’s sister, Jacqueline Samsel; my father, Tim Samsel; and brothers, Austin and Jared. From the time we arrived in San Francisco at 5 p.m. on June 2 from the time I left June 5, we didn’t have to worry about food, water, lodging or a shoulder to lean on and people to hug. Not being able to speak for my family, I’ll say that I’m extremely grateful for the way we were taken care of. It wasn’t just Tony’s fellow firefighters from Station 26 who cared for us but firefighters who stopped by, in full gear in engines and trucks, to drop off pallets of water and Gatorade, jugs of coffee, cartons of bagels, boxes upon boxes of pizza and homemade enchiladas, baked beans and Spanish rice. At one point, the kind firefighters from Engine 37 gave one of my aunts and me a ride back from Station 26 to San Francisco General Hospital on Friday night to visit Tony. On Thursday and Friday, we spent some time with his fellow firefighters, or brothers and sisters, at Station 26. After his death on Saturday, we spent more than half of the day there, trading stories about Tony, taking naps, and for Jared, Austin and me, playing at the nearby park. Another interesting aspect of his death was that it put me on the other side of the notebook and camera. Television news crews were staked out in the hospital’s parking lot and I was impressed with the respect they gave my family in our time of need. They never bulldogged us for a quote but gently asked us if we would talk, which I will forever appreciate. My blood did boil when I learned that several print journalists snuck into the hospital and almost made it to our room before being caught and escorted out by San Francisco Police Department members. One of the officers stayed outside of our waiting room on the second floor for the 2 ½-days we were there. At one point, he told us not to talk to anyone in the hallways who seemed extra friendly or asked questions, and to report that person to the police department stationed in the hospital. My comment to him, “You realize you’re telling this to a reporter?” was met with a holding up of his handcuffs in jest. Being on the other side of a video camera for a press conference was odd and I fought the urge to not grab the notebook I always carry in my bag and start taking notes. I’ll be out of commission today and Friday, since my family, my husband and I will attend the funeral, some of us playing an active role. Firefighters, as well as fire engines and trucks from all over the state, including some of Lincoln’s firefighters, will travel to San Francisco on Friday to pay their respects to my uncle and his fallen comrade. “We are sending an engine down, and they will all be off duty and volunteering their time,” Whitt said. “It’s to honor the fallen.” Whitt said he and his firefighters will honor my uncle and Perez since they “lost their lives in the line of duty.” This is not unique to fire victims, according to Whitt. “It’s anywhere where men and women will throw their life in front of bad things to protect people and their property. It’s where they have that really high level of sacrifice,” Whitt said. Lincoln fire personnel, excluding those who are working that day or can’t go, would travel to his funeral even if Tony weren’t my uncle, according to Whitt. To me, this says volumes about firefighters, the fact that they would attend the funeral of a firefighter they don’t even know. The actions of San Francisco’s fire and police departments, and even the city, are ones that my family and I will not soon forget. While we lost an uncle, a brother and a son, our family has grown exponentially, because to me, San Francisco’s fire and police departments are now part of our family. They are family I’m extremely proud to have.