Hundreds of mourners turned out at Coffey Funeral Home for John Kelly's visitation Friday evening.
Flags continue to fly at half-mast in the village in honor of Kelly, 51, who perished in the line of duty Monday while trying to help a long-time friend and fellow volunteer firefighter, Anthony Ruggiero. Both men died after succumbing to fumes in a manhole behind the Consolidated Engine Company firehouse.
Those closest to Kelly remembered him as a true friend, who always put others before himself.
"You could be out of gas at two in the morning and he would come and bring you a gallon," said Joe Rutiglan, a co-worker and a member of the same Tarrytown Volunteer Fire Department company that Kelly worked with. "He was one of a kind, a gift that keeps giving. That's all he did was give."
Kelly was born and raised in Sleepy Hollow and continued to call the town his home through his life; he lived in the Webber Park neighborhood. But his dedication to both Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow was more than apparent – he was a long-time firefighter and ambulance corps member serving both villages.
Kelly was an active member of Conqueror Hook and Ladder and the Tarrytown Fire Department for 33 years. He served as a Captain, Chief Driver and was recently promoted to Honorary Chief of the department. In 2007 he received an honorable mention, along with other members of the fire department, for his participation in a water rescue as part of the Fire Boat 5 crew. He was also active in the Sleepy Hollow Volunteer Ambulance Corps and the Greenburgh Civil Defense.
When not answering emergency calls, Kelly was a constant bright presence among other volunteers.
"I could spend all day telling you good things about him," Rutiglan said. "He was that kind of a guy. When he was around, you knew you were going to have a good time."
Kelly worked as a highway maintenance worker for the state DOT based out of Eastview, he also held down part-time work with his long-time friend John Stiloski at Stiloski's Automotive. He had a fondness for trucks, and took any opportunity to drive them in both his professional and volunteer capacities.
Some of his annual feats were legendary in the villages. He was known for cruising around town with a Christmas Tree in the back of his truck and always had an ear to the ground on what was happening in the villages – he scanned frequencies as a hobby. But first and foremost, he was a genuine man whose kindness and generosity continually defined his interactions with people.
"It's a kind of a messed up thing," Stiloski said. "When you die, everyone thinks your are a great guy, but when you're alive you can never make everyone happy. Kelly was a good guy before and he's still a good guy now. He died a hero. You couldn't beat him, he was always there. If you needed help, he was there, no matter what."
In the days leading up to his death, Kelly spent time at Lake George over the Labor Day weekend. He returned raving about an onion-radish topping that he had discovered at a farm near the lake. He headed up to Stiloski's home to bring him a jar of the stuff he had brought from his trip.
"He was like that, always bringing little things for us or my kids," Stiloski said.
He sat down with Stiloski and his family, who were enjoying an Italian meal.
"He stopped up, brought us this jar and we sat down for dinner," Stiloski said.
Stiloski lives about a block away from the Consolidated Engine Company firehouse. On the way to Stiloski's home, Kelly apparently saw the Anthony Ruggiero and another Village DPW worker attempting to free up the blocked sewer near Sheldon Avenue and Meadow Street.
"He was kind of antsy to go because he saw those guys down at the firehouse and he wanted to go hang out," Stiloski said. "He told my wife he wanted to go down to the firehouse."
Kelly went down to Consolidated Engine and ended up being the one who went down after Anthony Ruggiero in an attempt to save his friend.
"He had to be gone for 15 minutes and he was down that hole," Stiloski said.
Kelly's funeral will be tomorrow at St. Teresa of Avila in Sleepy Hollow. Turnout is expected to be immense with firefighting outfits from outside the county coming down to participate and honor a man who gave everything, even his life, to help others.
"It's a big loss, simple as that," Stiloski said. "I lost a friend, we all did."
John Kelly's funeral will be Saturday at 10:00 at St. Teresa of Avila Church with interment to follow in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.