Robert Tilearcio: A Hero Among Angels

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Remembering a local family man and firefighter

Tilearcio belonged to Engine Company 266 in Rockaway Beach, Queens. (Photos courtesy of the Tilearcio family)

“I want him remembered as a hero because that’s what he was.”

That’s the sentiment that Bobby Tilearcio wants everyone who hears his father’s name to think of.

Firefighter Robert Tilearcio passed away on Oct. 25 at the age of 58 from brain cancer. He was the 15th member of the FDNY to pass away from a 9/11 related illness this year. He joined the department on Dec. 12, 1983, and was still assigned to Engine Company 266 in Rockaway Beach, Queens until his death. Although his family is heartbroken over his loss, they treasure every minute spent with him, as a husband, father, person and all-around true hero.

The Tilearcio family, from left: Bobby, Tatiana, Tina and Robert

“We didn’t have a boring life, that’s for sure,” said Tina, Tilearcio’s widow. “He always found ways to laugh and his dream was to retire and be a comedian. Whether we had money or not, we always had fun.”

Bobby, 27, remembers how warm and kind his father was to everyone he came in contact with.

“As a firefighter, my dad would talk to all the homeless people outside the firehouse when no one else talked to them,” said Bobby. “He treated everyone with the same amount of respect. He instilled that in me and hopefully I can continue that legacy.”

Fireman Robert Tilearcio at Ground Zero

Bobby recently took the FDNY test, which his dad had always pushed him to do, and according to his mother, is “in his blood.”

“It would be nice to do what my dad did. Even from when I was a kid sliding down the pole at the firehouse and going on runs in the firetruck, I always wanted to help people,” said Bobby. “For 27 years I went back to the firehouse and saw my dad at work. I think being able to support a family and give back to the community is great.”

“He was always taking us to amusement parks, skiing, skydiving…he would go skydiving every year in memory of his friend who died on 9/11,” said Tatiana. “He loved roller coasters and loved having fun. I also always looked forward to when he would take me to the firehouse.”

“We traveled a lot, even to Poland. My dad taught me a lot, including how to ski. Every time I go skiing I’ll think of him,” said Bobby. “I’ll never forget being on the slopes with my dad and just talking.”

On September 11, 2001, while the rest of the world was carrying on with their day, New York City’s strength would be tested. As a member of the FDNY, Tilearcio’s family knew he would be down there helping without even thinking twice of the consequences on his own life.

Fireman Robert Tilearcio at Ground Zero

“I was so scared I was going to lose him that day,” said Tina, who picked up her son from Berner Middle School and her daughter from Birch Lane Elementary School. “From the day he got called to help, we didn’t see him for weeks after that. Sometimes he even slept in the city.”

“When 9/11 happened, the mood in the house was definitely sad. But we knew our dad was doing a good thing and we hoped he was safe from it,” said Tatiana.
“I never thought that 17 years later, it would kill him,” said Bobby. “People don’t realize how many people are sick because they didn’t have the right breathing devices.”

After it was made clear that first responders who helped clear Ground Zero of debris and rubble contracted illnesses from the site, Tilearcio fought aggressively to help pass the Zadroga Act, which protects and covers the healthcare and medical bills of all first responders who were exposed to poisonous toxins from their work at Ground Zero.

“It was a passion of his,” said Tatiana. “When he first started going to Washington he wasn’t diagnosed. The last time he went he was in a wheelchair but he kept fighting for what he knew needed to happen.”

In December 2015, with Tilearcio’s help, the Zadroga Act was extended to 2090, covering healthcare and bills for all those affected.

Tilearcio in The National September 11 Memorial & Museum. He stands in front of a photo of a group of firefighters including himself, quenching their thirst with water.

When the New York City skyline was forever changed, so was Tilearcio and his fellow FDNY and NYPD brothers. He went back to Ground Zero for the first time in 2010.

“We went to the museum as a family 16 years to the day it happened, but when we went back seven years ago, I wrote a postcard and put it on the wall,” said Tina. “I wrote it seeing it through his eyes; that was the title. I observed Robert most of the day and took everything in through him.”

Tatiana, who attended Pace University in Manhattan recalls learning more about her father’s heroic time during those dangerous few months.

“Every time he came to visit me, we walked around the city and he told me where he slept, who gave him food when he stayed in the city,” she said.

Before Tilearcio was laid to rest, he was remembered at a beautiful funeral service at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Massapequa. His family extended their heartfelt gratitude to the community, the parish, family, friends and neighbors who offered their love and support. In lieu of flowers, the Tilearcios asked for donations to be made to FDNY firedupforacure, an organization that fights to “extinguish cancer.” To make a donation on behalf of Tilearcio, visit the Facebook page or call 718-999-0372.

“Every person that met him was better off after he left them, that’s how my cousin put it,” said Tatiana of her beloved father. “He impacted people in a positive way, kept their spirits up and always kept them laughing.”

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Jennifer Fauci is the managing editor of Long Island Weekly, Boulevard and Anton Media Group’s local magazines. Her passion for literature, travel and the arts lend to the unique content in her publications. In her time at Anton, she has received first place in the Folio Awards, second place for the NYPA awards and is the recipient of three PCLI awards.

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