"How often have we decried our children no longer have any heroes," Monsignor Brendan Riordan said from the pulpit moments later.
"How blind of us not to know that the heroes have been around us all the time. We are here this morning saluting a truly world-class hero, Deputy Chief Raymond Matthew Downey."
Downey, 63, of Deer Park, was last seen in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel on Sept. 11, directing the rescue mission as the World Trade Center towers crumbled around him. His body has not been found.
During his 39-year career, Downey became one of the city's most decorated firefighters and achieved almost mythical status among them for his steely resolve in the face of disaster.
Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen said yesterday learning of Downey's loss was as crushing a blow as he suffered on Sept. 11.
"It was absolutely impossible to overcome," Von Essen said. "I couldn't imagine the New York City Fire Department without Ray Downey, especially with this tragedy to deal with."
A nationally known expert on urban search-and-rescue efforts, Downey directed recovery efforts at the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Downey, who long led Rescue 2 in Brooklyn, was head of the New York Fire Department's special operations command at his death.
His memorial mass yesterday drew hundreds, from as far as Broward County, Fla., where Peter DeJesse, a firefighter from Fort Lauderdale, took classes from Downey on dealing with hazardous materials. "He shakes your hand, and its like you've known him for 20 years," DeJesse said, standing outside the church.
Chris Pelszynski, a volunteer firefighter from North Babylon, had never met Downey, but still wanted to help hoist one of the three American flags from fire trucks on both sides of Deer Park Avenue.
"He was like God, that's what everybody says," said Pelszynski, referring to Downey's nickname.
After mourners entered the church to bagpipes playing "Danny Boy," Msgr. Riordan spoke, and Downey's widow, Rosalie, walked with family members down the center aisle, laying a red rose on the pew. She sat with their five children, Lt. Chuck Downey of Commack, fire Capt. Joseph Downey of West Islip, Ray Downey Jr. of Babylon, Marie Tortorici of Deer Park and Kathy Ugalde of Deer Park.
Addressing them, Gov. George Pataki said, "We hope you have some consolation knowing that on that horrible day, the actions of Ray Downey and the men that he trained saved thousands and thousands of lives."
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani recalled two days this year when Downey stayed away from home, first to battle a gas main rupture in Brooklyn, and then to work at a building collapse in lower Manhattan. When the mayor asked him how he was at the time, Downey said he was fine, but asked Giuliani to bring his wife a note, excusing his absence.
"Now I ask Rosalie to excuse his absence one last time," Giuliani said yesterday. "Her husband, our hero, has laid down his life doing what he loved to do."
Others recalled some of Downey's signature rescue missions. In Oklahoma City, he urged those he oversaw to recover the most bodies, and they did, said Lt. Al Fuentes of Rescue 2. At the scene of the US Air Flight 405 crash at LaGuardia Airport in 1992, Fuentes said, Downey "was directing the rescue effort like he was directing a symphony orchestra."
His five children and two of Downey's grandchildren described a quiet, strong father who pushed them to excel in sports and learn the value of earning a living. To them, he was the man who piled into the car and drove to Iowa for an important wrestling match, who blew up the balloons at a birthday party.
His son, Ray Downey Jr., who was one of the last to speak yesterday, said, "I didn't need Sept. 11 to tell me who my hero was."