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Soccer-maven firefighter remembered in Flushing

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“Today I join my life to you,” she read in an address to her fiance´, Sergio Villanueva, at the St. Andrew Avellino Church in Flushing. “You are my dearest...

By Alexander Dworkowitz

In front of an audience of nearly 1,000 people, Tanya Villanueva read her marriage vows Friday.

“Today I join my life to you,” she read in an address to her fiance´, Sergio Villanueva, at the St. Andrew Avellino Church in Flushing. “You are my dearest love and my best friend.”

But the bride-to-be heard no vows in return.

Sergio Villanueva and the woman who was then Tanya Bejasa had planned to marry this summer. But like 342 other firefighters, Villanueva’s plans were cut short as he died attempting to rescue men and women from the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

After the attack, Tanya decided to take on her fiancé’s last name in his honor.

The Villanueva family had hoped the remains of Sergio would be found at Ground Zero. But as the recovery effort drew to a close and no sign of his body was recovered, the family decided to schedule a memorial service.

Hundreds packed the enormous church to mourn Villanueva, 33. Since he served as a firefighter with Ladder Co. 132 in Brooklyn after spending several years as a New York City police officer, many of those attending the memorial service were members of the FDNY and the NYPD.

After a traditional Catholic service, Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed the standing-room-only audience.

“On behalf of those rescued, I want to express our gratitude to Sergio,” said Bloomberg. “There is a handful of exemplary people who seem to know how to serve and to lead, and Sergio was one of them.”

Born in Argentina, Villanueva moved with his family to Flushing, where his parents opened a restaurant.

His friends and relatives remembered Villanueva as a handsome, popular man who lived with boundless energy.

Fitzgerald Ventura recalled the days when he and Villanueva were teenagers and the Argentine immigrant showed him how to talk to girls without getting nervous.

“Sergio had already figured it out,” said Ventura. “He exuded confidence.”

“During the happiest times of my life, my friend Sergio was to the right of me,” said Ventura, holding back tears.

Larry de Jesus, who befriended Villanueva when the two were both 16, remembered the firefighter as a huge soccer fan who loved to experiment with hair styles.

“I’ll miss those afternoon phone calls to go play soccer,” he said.

Villanueva’s younger brother, Steve, read a poem he had written to the firefighter on a receipt in a bar in Seattle back in October.

“Where were you?” Steve Villanueva read. “What was on your mind? Were you scared?”

“Ever since I was little, I wanted to be like you, just like you,” he said. “I still do.”

Tanya Villanueva, who runs a candle shop in Jackson Heights, recalled the first time she kissed her fiancé in Miami on June 30, 1994.

“I couldn’t resist his magical kiss,” she said.

Seven years later to the day, Villanueva asked for her hand in marriage.

Villanueva spent the last week of his life enjoying himself, Tanya Villanueva said, playing pool with his friends, taking her out dancing, and scoring the winning goal in the annual FDNY-NYPD soccer match.

“He lived such an honorable life — with no regrets,” she said.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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