New Haven Firefighter Ricardo Torres Jr., who died responding to a house fire last week where two people were rescued, was remembered during his funeral Thursday for the high energy that earned him the nickname “Tornado” as well as his dedication to the city, his job and his family.
“When I met you, you were this little 13-year-old teenage boy that had so much energy that I don’t think the Energizer Bunny had anything on you,” Torres’ stepfather, Armand Mendez, said. “And from the stories I’ve heard at the firehouse from your brothers and sisters, that hasn’t changed.”
Torres, 30, had been on the job less than two years, fulfilling a dream he’d had since he was a young boy, when he was killed. Thousands of firefighters from across the state and country, including personnel from Tennessee, Texas and Washington, D.C., traveled to New Haven Thursday for a procession that carried Torres’ body from the New Haven Fire Department headquarters to St. Mary’s Church.
During the procession, officers who stopped traffic saluted the passing vehicles as community members got outside their cars to pay their respects. One woman wiped tears with one hand, as her other rested across her heart.
The thousands of fire personnel who gathered outside the historic church filled the road with their navy blue suits, white gloves and individual badges representing their respective communities.
Regional firefighters, including some from UConn, helped cover firehouses across the city so hundreds of Torres’ grief-stricken colleagues could attend the service.
Torres’ supervisors at the Dixwell Station spoke during the service and remembered him as fast-paced, self-motivated and with a strong work ethic. Capt. Kendall Richardson was Torres’ instructor at the fire academy.
“When he graduated, I was blessed with the opportunity of becoming his commanding officer,” he said. “I thought to myself, this is going to be a challenge. I know his energy. … He had a motor unlike anybody.”
Richardson said he’d look for Torres during morning roll call at the firehouse and find he’d already raced to complete tasks like cleaning and other housework. “He wanted to get right to the training, he wanted to keep learning,” he said. “He wanted to be the best firefighter he could be.”
The captain said he could recall 10 instances off the top of his head where Torres was part of life-saving efforts. “Rico was one of those high-strung firefighters who wanted to get in there and he wanted to save as many lives as possible.”
Richardson recalled a conversation he had on his last shift working with Torres. “I told him if I were ever to lose one of my firefighters that I’d be broken,” he said. “I’m friggin’ broken. I don’t cry, I don’t normally tear up, I don’t normally show emotion. But I haven’t been able to sleep.”
Torres also had a lighter side, colleagues said. Lt. William Riggott recalled an incident that happened about two weeks after Torres started with the department. The firefighters responded to a call where a woman in the home spoke no English. He said he struggled to converse with her in Spanish before hearing Torres’ distinctive laugh behind him.
“He tapped me on the shoulder and said, LT, I got you on this,” Riggott recalled. “After the patient was loaded into the ambulance we were walking outside, Rico pulled me aside saying, ‘LT, let’s make a deal, you teach me everything you know about the job, and I’ll try to teach you Spanish. This way you won’t have people giving you the most awkward and confused look on calls.’ “
Torres’ mother, Cathy Foster-Mendez, said she was struggling to understand how her son had been killed. “I still don’t, and I still can’t,” she said. “But remaining silent as I struggle to wrap my head around what just happened does you a great disservice. So I want everyone to know what an awesome son and man you truly were.”
She spoke of raising Torres as a single mother after his father died. “For all the things people say about me and how I raised you by myself, the truth is, you made me stronger. Behind your great big smile was a great big heart, whose capacity to love was greater than any force. You lived your life to the fullest and you loved your family and your friends deeply.”
Torres’ pregnant wife, Erica Martinez, was the last speaker at the funeral, retelling the story of how the couple met online and that she had “absolutely no intention of dating anyone.”
“I was ready to delete the app when I received a message from a decent looking guy who stated he was 5-foot-9 and a chef. His message to me read ‘Hi Erica.’ That’s it,” she said. “Initially I was ignore the message but I remember thinking to myself ‘I literally have nothing better to do, let’s see where this goes.’ We soon met for our first date at the movies where he was 15 minutes late. I paid for our movie tickets and he didn’t even offer to buy me popcorn, how rude.”
The church crowd laughed as she continued their love story. Following the movie, she said the couple sat in her car for three hours speaking, then after she rejected a kiss from him, he shook her hand instead when it was time to say goodbye for the night.
“I was going through my phone trying to pull up my maps app so I could figure out how to get home when he suddenly beeped his horn. I looked up and he smiled at me and got out of his car. He comes in front of my car, opens my door and tells me to get out, I do, and we share our first kiss,” she said. “The rest is history. And I would like to clarify that Ricardo was barely 5-foot-7 and definitely not a chef.”
After explaining how the couple met, Torres’ wife said that he changed her perspective of love and “things lasting forever.”
“You’re Ricardo freakin’ Torres and anyone who knows you understands that your absence is absolutely deafening,” she said. Their son Oliver’s 1st birthday is next week “and it hurts my soul you’re going to miss it,” Martinez said.
“We’ve been so excited, counting down the days and now things are going to feel very different without you here. … I just want to fast forward through the pain to the point where I have peace with all of this because it’s unbearable. I can only hope that there is peace after all of this.”
After the funeral, Torres’ fire academy class carried his flag-wrapped casket to a white Engine 4 truck that was surrounded by his saluting New Haven Fire Department family. The truck brought Torres to Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford as his final resting place.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said that he believed more than 5,000 firefighters had flown in from around the country, with some from Puerto Rico.
Torres joined the fire department in July 2019. He’s remembered as someone with a “significant impact in the fire service, with his coworkers, with his family and on me personally,” Fire Chief John Alston, who hired Torres, said.
“The first lesson I learned [from Ricardo’s life] was to follow your dreams, nobody gets anywhere by themselves and be honest and forthright,” Alston said. “The next lesson I learned from him was about love. He loved you Erica. He loved his family. He loved his mother. He loved his firefighters. He loved the job. He loved what he was doing. Every time you saw him, he was smiling. I would say ‘Torres! How’s it going?’ and he would say ‘Living the dream Chief!’ and smiling. Always smiling.”
Torres and other firefighters responded to the fire on Valley Street last Wednesday. The firefighters were able to rescue two people, but Torres, and his 28-year-old fellow firefighter Lt. Samod Rankins, became lost and disoriented in the home, resulting in a “MAYDAY” rescue call. The two men were pulled out from the second-floor of the home unconscious.
Rankins was in critical condition and put into a medically induced coma at the burn unit at Bridgeport Hospital. A few days later, his condition was upgraded to “fair,” and the young lieutenant has been recovering since, but Torres succumbed to his injuries.
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