NJ firefighter who died from COVID-19 remembered, laid to rest

Family, colleagues and neighbors said fallen Passaic Firefighter Israel Tolentino Jr. was caring, selfless and born to be a firefighter

Rodrigo Torrejon
NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

PASSAIC, N.J. — Israel Tolentino was born to be a firefighter.

Passaic Firefighter Israel Tolentino Jr., 33, died from COVID-19 on March 31, 2020. He is survived by his wife Maria Vazquez, daughter Ailani, 9, and son Israel III, 7. (Photo/NJ FMBA Facebook)
Passaic Firefighter Israel Tolentino Jr., 33, died from COVID-19 on March 31, 2020. He is survived by his wife Maria Vazquez, daughter Ailani, 9, and son Israel III, 7. (Photo/NJ FMBA Facebook)

It wasn’t out of a love of the uniform, though Tolentino beamed with pride everyday he walked out wearing the Passaic Fire Department emblem. It wasn’t even out of a mountain of bravery or a penchant for running towards the flames.

It was, his wife Maria Vazquez said, because he couldn’t help but be selfless.

“It fulfilled his urge to serve others,” said Vazquez, his wife of more that 10 years. “He was so selfless. It drew me closer to him. It drew everyone closer to him.”

On Tuesday morning, Tolentino, 33, died from complications with the coronavirus after battling it for nearly two weeks. The Passaic firefighter leaves behind Vazquez and their two children, daughter Ailani, 9, and son Israel III, 7.

Tolentino also leaves behind a gaping hole in the city of Passaic where the man many called “Nudge” or “Izzy” protected and served people with an easy smile and a relentless push to help others before himself.

Always a firefighter

When Vazquez met Tolentino at their church Iglesia De Dios in November 2003, sparks did not immediately fly, Vazquez said.

After growing up in Paterson, moving to Puerto Rico for a few years, then returning to Paterson, Tolentino had few roots in Passaic other than the church, she said. And their initial relationship was one of dutiful worship and little romance.

But day after day of meeting in the pews of their church coaxed a friendship to grow into more.

Talks after church services soon became a regular date, with conversations stretching all night - to 5 or 7 a.m. - before either realized the time, she said. Soon, it was clear that the two were more than just friends.

On July 25, 2004, the two started dating.

And five years to the day, in keeping with Tolentino’s attention to detail, the two were married, she said.

Throughout their time together, Tolentino, who also served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years, was always a firefighter, said Vazquez.

When the two met, Tolentino was a volunteer at the fire department and first aid squad in West Paterson, now Woodland Park. And for years, he was also a member of the Monmouth Ocean Hospital Service Corporation (MONOC) and at Cardinal Ambulance Corps, in Totowa.

When he moved to Passaic with Vazquez, Tolentino would volunteer as an EMT and as a member of the city’s community emergency response team, part of its Office of Emergency Management.

But every volunteer job Tolentino took was with his lifelong dream in mind: becoming a Passaic firefighter. It all started when he met Manny Rivera, his uncle and a former battalion chief in Passaic.

“He’s the son I never had,” said Rivera, who recently retired from the fire department. “My daughter has actually compared the two of us like we were twins. He did look up to me and I always tried to guide him in the right direction.”

Meeting Tolentino when he was an adult, Rivera shared the same sense of humor, constantly making each other and those around them break out into fits of laughter. When the two had free time, they’d ride side by side on chopper motorcycles, Rivera said.

And in December 2018, after years of setbacks and difficulties, Tolentino finally fulfilled his dream. And his mentor Rivera was there to pin the fire department badge on him.

"He finally got on and I was very proud of him,” said Rivera, holding back tears.

‘Izzy cared more about everyone first’

Tolentino’s life as a father, husband and a firefighter were all defined by a drive to help others, his friends said.

Longtime friend Cesar Perez, an EMS supervisor in Passaic, recalled Tolentino not taking no for an answer when it came to help. After Perez’s wife suffered a stroke, Tolentino, or “Nudge” as Perez called him, would constantly check on the man he called “viejo" and “abuelo”: which means old man and grandpa.

“'You sure you don’t need anything?' was his answer to me, whenever I tried to change the conversation," Perez said. “I made the mistake of telling him about some car problems my daughter was having. He quickly told me to pick up the keys to a black Mustang he was working on.”

Sometimes, Tolentino would refuse the payments Perez would give him.

“Izzy cared more about everyone first,” Perez said. “I have been so lucky to have been graced by his presence, his intoxicating smile and the love he imparted. I have lost a 'grandson,’ a brother Marine, a truest friend. I consider myself fortunate to have had the times I spent by his side.”

A final farewell

Standing in the Wednesday dusk, fellow EMTs lined up outside Tolentino’s house, holding candles, clad in face masks and gloves, and socially distanced - a stark reminder of the pandemic that permeates the world and threatens first responders like Tolentino, who remained on the frontlines of the outbreak.

Vazquez stood on her porch and looked out at the rows of men and women who came to pay their last respects to her husband, a man who at the age of 33 had mentored many of them. Looking out at the masked men and women, their children - Ailani, who Tolentino called his “princess," and Israel, who Tolentino always called “my best friend" - stood at her side.

On Thursday morning, his funeral procession took off from Alvarez Funeral Home. A Passaic fire truck, with red and blue lights flashing and its sharp sirens blaring, passed by rows of cherry blossoms, following the hearse that would bring Tolentino to his final resting place at the East Ridgelawn Cemetery, in Clifton.

Due to state law meant to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, only 10 of Tolentino’s closest friends and family would be able to attend the burial ceremony, a final cruel jab from the virus that took his life.

At the burial, the family and friends, all in masks, left flowers, as Tolentino’s son and namesake Israel clutched his father’s fire helmet.

Days after their father and husband had died, thinking about Tolentino was painful, bringing back into focus the harsh reality and the road ahead for the family, said Vazquez. But it was also inevitable that more than a few minutes remembering Tolentino would end in laughter, she said.

“We have moments where we break down and we cry,” his wife said. “Then we have moments where we start thinking of him and when you start thinking of him you can’t do anything but laugh."


©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.


It is with deep sorrow that we announce the Line of Duty Death of FF Israel “Nudge” Tolentino, 33 years old. FF...

Posted by Passaic Fire Department Local 13/213 on Tuesday, March 31, 2020

You will surely be missed ff tolentino.... in such a short time you have placed a permanent imprint on us and our memories of you will never be forgotten.. rest in peace "NUDGE" #PFDSTRONG #TOUR4TUNATE 😔🙏🏽❤🚒👨🏾‍🚒

Posted by Passaic Fire Department Local 13/213 on Thursday, April 2, 2020


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