Tolley, 42, the married father of an 8-year-old girl, died after a bizarre five-story plunge while working on the roof of a Queens building hit by a small blaze three floors below, officials said.
“It was a routine operation, and somehow he fell from the roof,” said FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro at a grim hospital news conference. “It is a terrible tragedy for a department that has known more than its share of tragedy.”
Nigro said Tolley — assigned to Ladder 135 — was the 1,172nd member of the FDNY to die in the line of duty.
An American flag flew at half-staff Thursday evening outside the Bethpage, L.I., home of the lost firefighter.
“We’re totally devastated,” Tolley’s stepfather, Frank DeCillis, told Newsday from his home in Tampa. “I was closer to him than I was my own sons … He was loved by everybody.”
Neighbors remembered him as a friendly family man.
“I just saw him this morning,” said friend and neighbor Mike Gleason, 35. “He just said hello to me and had his daughter on his shoulders … taking his daughter up to school.”
The fire, contained to a single room in a one-bedroom apartment on Putnam Ave. in Ridgewood, was “mainly extinguished” by the time of Tolley’s fatal fall, just before 2:30 p.m., Nigro said.
A source bluntly described the fire as a minor blaze that firefighters would typically put down without any risks — much less a death.
The FDNY immediately launched an investigation, with a firetruck left on the street and the ladder stretching into the night sky long after the fatal accident.
Witnesses said it appeared Tolley simply took a misstep while moving between the roof and the bucket at the end of a five-story ladder about 20 minutes into the FDNY’s response.
“One firefighter fell as he was making his way to the roof,” said Luz Soria, 58, who was walking with her children when the tragedy happened. “I got really nervous. I felt bad.”
Witness Angie Cordero, 43, who lives across the street, agreed that the firefighter fell while transferring from the bucket to the roof.
“It sounded like an explosion when he fell,” said Cordero.
A visibly shaken Mayor de Blasio arrived at the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center emergency room around 4:25 p.m., after Tolley was already pronounced dead.
He and Nigro met with members of the firefighter’s family — including his devastated widow, Marie. Tolley was also survived by both his parents and his brother Bobby.
“Everybody is in a state of shock and disbelief,” said the mayor.
The senior firefighter was “a man dedicated to protecting others,” de Blasio continued. “He gave his life to this work … We have lost another hero today. He made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Nigro said it was unclear if there was a mechanical problem with the ladder or an issue with the bucket — but made it clear this was an extremely bizarre incident.
“There was nothing about the fire that had to do with the accident,” the commissioner said. “It was a routine operation he was doing on the roof.”
Building superintendent Jimmey Rampahl, 60, said he heard the sound of the firefighter’s equipment clanging against the ladder.
“I tilt my head away and then I hear a sound like, ‘boom,’” he said. “And the guy came down. I’ve never seen anything like it. Once he hit the ground, he never moved.”
Three civilians suffered minor injuries in the fire and were also taken to Wyckoff Hospital.
Tolley was also a well-regarded death metal drummer, performing with the band Internal Bleeding — playing live shows in Switzerland and the Netherlands, among other places.
Tolley, who delivered newspapers as a boy, took up the drums at the age of 8, and continued to play even after joining the FDNY. But his No. 1 loves were his wife and daughter, Isabella.
“When I am not drumming, I work at the Fire Department,” he said in a 2013 interview. “When I am not working, I also watch my 4-year-old. I am a family guy. I love spending time with my wife and daughter, doing all sort of fun stuff together.”
Tolley’s flag-draped body was carried out of the hospital by members of his ladder company Thursday evening. Hundreds of his fellow firefighters stood at attention, saluting the fallen hero, as his wife watched the procession and wiped away tears.
Donations in Tolley’s honor can be made to the Firefighter William Tolley’s Children’s Educational Fund through the FDNY Foundation.
The line-of-duty death came just hours after the FDNY held a ceremony honoring Deputy Chief Michael Fahy. Fahy, killed by a Sept. 27 explosion at a marijuana grow house in the Bronx, was added to the list of names on the department’s Memorial Wall.
And late last month, the department gathered for a funeral remembering FDNY EMT Yadira Arroyo — run down by a madman behind the wheel of her ambulance.
Late Thursday, firefighters kept a quiet vigil at Tolley’s Ladder 135 firehouse in Glendale.
“If I start talking about it right now I’ll lose it. Maybe tomorrow, just not right now,” said one, his eyes red from crying.