INWOOD, N.Y. (WABC) --The funeral for volunteer firefighter Joseph Sanford Jr. was a solemn affair Wednesday after the Inwood man was killed in the line of duty.
"We call it the brotherhood. When a tragedy like this happens, it happens to all of us. This could happen to any of us," said Robert Leonard, of the Firemen's Association State of New York.
Sanford, 43, had served with the Inwood (Long Island) Fire Department for 17 years and had once been assistant fire chief. He died Dec. 23, four days after battling a house fire in Woodmere, where he fell through the floor into the basement and suffered a heart attack.
The flames broke out in the basement of the empty home on Central Avenue just before 4 a.m. Officials said Sanford was one of the first on the scene after the initial 911 call. It is unclear if other firefighters even knew he was inside, as his lifeless body was found accidentally by other firefighters making their way through the house.
"Everyday these guys for no pay put their lives on their line for us, to protect our lives and property, and they deserve so much credit for doing so," said Michael Fragin, a trustee of Lawrence, on Wednesday.
Firefighters from Long Island, Maryland and Buffalo came to the funeral to honor Sanford, who was known as a firefighters' type of guy -- tough, strong and gutsy.
"It's important for his family to know that we're there for them. It's important for his fire department family to know that we're there for them," said Ret. Chief Mike Lombardo, of the Buffalo Fire Dept.
On Tuesday, Sanford's wake was held at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Inwood only blocks from the Inwood Fire Department.
"I look at it like this. He died doing what he loved do to best. So I congratulate my cousin with all my heart. I love him," said his cousin Peter Sanford.
Sanford was affectionately known by his family and friends as - just simply - Junior. "He's a community-oriented man. Family man. He has children, a wife. So he's committed," said another cousin, Chris Peoples.
Last week, hundreds of firefighters escorted his body from North Shore University Hospital to the Nassau County Medical Examiner's Office.
"He was a really strong person and he was a really amazing fireman," said Sanford's daughter, Janisha.
Sanford leaves behind his daughter as well as his wife, Jackie; both were at the funeral. He will be buried at Greenfield cemetery in Uniondale.
"Everyone has gone above and beyond, and for that we would like say thank you," added his widow, Jackie Sanford.
"It hits everybody extremely hard," Garden City Park Fire Department Assistant Chief Mike Magas said. "It's a volunteer service. Any loss, whether paid or volunteer, is tough, especially around the holidays. It's extremely difficult on the family and his fellow firefighters."
Inwood Fire Chief Anthony Rivelli said Sanford's death has really hit the small Inwood Fire Department hard. But seeing the trucks lined on Community Drive from departments all across the area made them realize they aren't alone.
"The outpouring of support we saw this morning was overwhelming. We all broke this morning. It's probably one of the worst days of my life right now," he said.
An online campaign to raise money for the family that began with a goal of $2,500 has generated more than $32,000. To donate:
The Inwood Fire Department has established a fund to support the Sanford family. Donations may be mailed to: Inwood Fire Department/Joseph Sanford Fund (Checks must be made payable this way). 188 Doughty Blvd., Inwood, NY 11096