By Stephanie Horvath and Patty Pensa | Sun-Sentinel.com
He was a good son, desperate to please his father.
Rafael Vazquez Jr. broke down in tears as he spoke about the last promise he made to his dad, lieutenant firefighter Rafael “Ray” Vazquez, who was given a funeral with full honors Friday.
His pledge: to get in shape and become a firefighter.
“I made a promise to him I would work out and keep going until I made it into the fire academy,” Rafael Vazquez Jr., 21, said, fighting back tears behind his sunglasses. “I know after I’ve done that he’ll be proud of me. I love my dad”
He then hugged three of his four siblings who were with him on the Cruzan Amphitheatre’s stage, a family huddle of arms and bowed heads, as a guitarist played “Amazing Grace.”
More than 1,000 mourners gathered to say goodbye to Vazquez, who was shot and killed Monday at a Wendy’s counter while exchanging a kid’s meal toy for his 4-year-old son.
Rafael Vazquez Jr. said he and his dad had started working out together just last week. He went to the gym again on Monday, after his dad’s death, and pushed himself, a tribute to his father. Now he said he calls his dad’s cell phone to hear his voice.
“Now as I dial his number, listen to his voicemail and know my father is no longer there, I know he’s watching over me with his mom, Grandma Gladys,” he said. “I pray to God every night to make me strong, make me the man I need to be.”
The bagpipes played “Lord Lovat’s Lament” as Vazquez’s casket was slowly brought into the theater west of West Palm Beach on Friday morning. His widow, five children and more than 100 family and friends followed. Law enforcement officers and firefighters from more than a two dozen agencies around the state saluted the flag-draped casket.
“No matter the turmoil that might be whirling around Ray, he could always be counted on,” said Lt. Pete Wallwork, a friend and boss at Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, his voice thickened with tears. “New recruits and crusty old chiefs could learn a lot from Ray, with his always positive can-do attitude.”
Wallwork and Lt. Mark Knickerbocker, a friend, described Vazquez the way everyone has since his death shocked the county this week.
“Ray was the definition of what a great father was. I’ve never seen kids look up to their dad like Ray’s kids did to him,” Knickerbocker said. “When they were teenagers, instead of going to parties and hanging out with their friends, they would rather hang out with Ray all the time. What teenagers do that?”
Vazquez’s wife Michele, dressed in a brown jacket and skirt, walked in behind the casket. Her children followed close behind, clasping hands. Tiffany, Vazquez’s 19-year-old daughter, held the couple’s 4-year-old son, who was dressed in a brown vest.
The memorial service started at 11 a.m. and was immediately followed by procession to the Dorsey E. Earl Smith Memory Gardens Funeral Home west of Lake Worth. Vazquez will be cremated.
Vazquez, 42, was killed at a Wendy’s west of West Palm Beach when Alburn Blake, 60, opened fire on the lunchtime crowd. Blake wounded four others before shooting himself in the head.
He left no explanation and authorities are still grappling with the question, “Why?”
Vazquez had finished eating lunch with Michele and their 4-year-old, but he returned to the restaurant to exchange the toy. As the violence unfolded inside, Michele said she knelt on the side of the road, weeping with her son.
“I thank God everyday for giving me the 13 years that I had with him,” Michele, a Palm Springs police officer, said Thursday during a press conference.
She and Vazquez met in the 1990s while working as partners, he a paramedic and she an EMT, for an ambulance company. They were married for seven years, and their family of five kids, ages 4 to 21, is a mishmash of his, hers and theirs. But all of them called Vazquez “dad.”
On Friday morning, two cranes hoisted a huge American flag over the theater’s entrance. The stage inside was decorated simply, with a podium, an arrangement of red, white and blue flowers, a large American flag and a single guitar.
A silver fire bell sat in front of the stage. It harkened back to the days when the firehouses would ring their bells when they lost a man in the line of duty.
Firefighters from several fire-rescue stations — from Delray Beach to Key Biscayne — attended a ceremony at the cemetery, surrounding the grieving family seated before Vazquez’s coffin.
As tradition dictates, firefighters wearing white gloves removed the rope around the coffin, lifted the American flag and folded into a neat triangle. The firefighters looking on stood saluting as Michele Vazquez bowed her head and wrapped her arms around her youngest son, 4-year-old Adrian.
In the difficult moment of silence — observed by fire stations across the area — Tiffany Vazquez, 19, draped her arm around her step-mother. A couple behind Michele Vazquez placed their hands on her back in consolation. The powerful scene was made more so by the booming bagpipes and the trill of the drums.
Women in the crowd of several hundred wiped their eyes. The family pulled tissues from boxes placed beneath their seats. Michele Vazquez wiped Adrian’s nose and, then, her own eyes.
Fire-rescue officials presented Michele Vazquez with the flag, her husband’s gear and helmet, and medals in his honor.
Scott Jurasz, a firefighter with Palm Beach Fire-Rescue, was among the 25 bagpipers from around the state who performed at the memorial. Jurasz, who wore a red-and-green kilt, said he’d only met Vazquez a few times.
“Just losing someone in the department, everyone feels it,” he said.
Fifteen drummers from around the state also performed. They played “Highland Cathedral” as the casket was carried out of the theater.
Jurasz said it was the first time he’s played at a funeral given with full honors for a local firefighter.
“It’s a pure honor,” he said.