New York Times
April 14, 2014


A Sea of Blue and Mourning at an Officer’s Funeral

By Michael Wilson

The police sharpshooters stood atop an apartment tower on Beach 84th Street in Far Rockaway on Monday morning. They were there by way of protocol, but the view must have been striking. It was a fitting vantage point for the funeral of an officer who died in a high-rise building fire.

Below, hundreds of uniformed officers lined Beach 84th and spilled around the corner onto Shore Front Parkway. Beyond them stretched the beach and the choppy surf of the Atlantic Ocean. The sea still too cold for beach visitors, the neighborhood seemed to exist just for this funeral. Blue sky, blue coats. A biting wind off the water. Three flag bearers, standing near the mayor and his wife, fought to keep their colors upright.

Before them all stood St. Rose of Lima Church, its doors open, waiting.

The death of a police officer in the line of duty in New York City inspires sorrow and sometimes outrage. It also triggers an age-old pageant to honor the fallen, and on Monday, the funeral was for Officer Dennis Guerra, 38. He and another officer, Rosa Rodriguez, 36, were responding to a fire at a high-rise apartment in Coney Island on April 6. They took the elevator to the 13th floor only to be overcome by smoke. Officer Guerra died days later; Officer Rodriguez remains hospitalized.

A teenager, Marcell Dockery, 16, who was arrested and charged with setting the fire, told investigators that he had set a mattress on fire because he was bored, the police said. After Officer Guerra’s death, he was charged with second-degree murder.

In the silence surrounding the church, a slow thump of heavy drums announced the New York City Police Department’s Emerald Society Pipes and Drums before they could be seen. Row after row of police motorcycles followed, two abreast. Then came a hearse bearing flowers and, finally, the one carrying Officer Guerra’s coffin.

Officers lined up at the rear of the vehicle, and one said softly, “right-face,” and they turned, raised the coffin to their shoulders and entered the church. Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, the fallen officer’s friends and family, and dozens of colleagues followed, with one ritual making way for another, the funeral Mass.

When there was nowhere left to sit, people stood along walls and in the rear.

“We come to say farewell to a hero,” said the Rev. Gutierrez Fulgencio, the priest who married Officer Guerra and his wife almost nine years ago. The couple went on to have four children.

Father Fulgencio urged the congregation to remember the hero and not “the irrational act of a 16-year-old teenager.”

Mayor de Blasio rose to speak. “A mayor has no more solemn, no more somber duty than the one before me today,” he said. He too called the officer of eight years a hero.

But then he shared other sides of Officer Guerra, from the skateboard he cherished as a child to the apron he proudly wore while barbecuing outside his Far Rockaway house. The apron read — “and I quote,” the mayor said — “‘Grillmaster: The Man, the Myth, the Legend.’ ”

In July, Officer Guerra rescued a boy from a burning vehicle on the Belt Parkway “just before a tire exploded,” the mayor said. When Officers Guerra and Rodriguez ran toward the elevator on April 6, “their first thought was, ‘It’s up to us to save people’s lives.’ ”

Mr. Bratton spoke next, of how as a child, Officer Guerra so admired his father that he chose to follow him into the police force. The younger Guerra worked dangerous posts, and the calls poured in: “Drugs were being sold. Disorderly group. Man with a gun,” Mr. Bratton said. “Dennis seemed to relish in it.” He would sometimes call his father and say, “I’m starting where you started.” When he asked his father for advice, his father said, “Go with your gut. You’ll do the right thing.”

Officer Guerra’s father retired at the rank of detective, and his son was posthumously promoted to the same rank, Mr. Bratton said. The church filled with applause.

Mr. Bratton paused to remember the outdoor chef — “They were the best hamburgers. He would tell you that while you were eating one” — before addressing the officer’s family.

“You are surrounded by a sea of blue today,” he said. “Our family is your family.”

The Mass ended, the police officers flowing out to again line the street. Many neighborhood residents came to watch.

“It’s all for one and one for all — this officer was trying to help somebody out and it cost him his life,” said Mike Ladd, 56, a painter.

“It’s very beautiful, the ceremony,” said Kat Raynor, 37, a doula. “It’s quite the send-off. So sad.”

The bagpipes sounded, leading the hearse carrying Officer Guerra’s body away from the church. A formation of seven police helicopters passed overhead.

An elderly man, winded and carrying a cane, leaned against the church to catch his breath. He wore large, dark glasses.

“I can’t see anyway,” he said to another onlooker. Was that the coffin coming out, he asked. It was.

He was asked why he was here.

“My son,” he said, “is a lieutenant.”

The proceedings concluded, the officers returned to cars and vans and buses to exit Far Rockaway and return to their work.

Marc Santora and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.