A sea of firefighters in crisp, navy blue uniforms filled the pews of St. Boniface Church of Sea Cliff. As flashing red engine lights flickered through the church’s stained-glass windows, members of the Sea Cliff Fire Department stood in solidarity on the marble steps of the church’s altar to officiate a firematic funeral service for one of their own.
Former Fire Chief Michael Hallquest died on Jan. 2, after an eight-year battle with brain cancer. He was 34.
Hundreds of firefighters joined his family, friends and the community last Friday to remember his legacy of service. Attendees wore gray ribbons in support of brain cancer awareness.
Hallquest was an FDNY firefighter, with Elmhurst Eagles Ladder 136, for five years before his diagnosis in 2010, and served with the Sea Cliff department for 17 years. Sea Cliff is part of Nassau County’s 5th Battalion, which includes the Bayville, East Norwich, Glen Cove, Glenwood Landing, Locust Valley, Oyster Bay, Atlantic Steamer, Syosset and Roslyn fire companies.
Deacon Ted Kolakowski, the department’s chaplain, said he knew Hallquest as a special, persistent person who showed immeasurable strength in times of adversity, anxiety and tribulation, noting that he “went back up the ladder” after remission to resume his duties as chief.
Kolakowski had officiated at the wedding of Laura and Michael Hallquest. The couple had two children, Emily, 2, and Nicholas, 9 months. Memories of visiting Hallquest in his hospital room haunt Kolakowski still, he said. It was heartbreaking to see the playpen that had been set up so the chief could spend time with his children. “It touches the very heart, and the depth of one’s soul, to see a man’s love for his wife and children,” the deacon said.
The Rev. Kirt Watkins, of Sea Cliff, said Hallquest “never got over the excitement of fire engines and flashing lights,” and described his fire service as “selfless.”
To honor him, Watkins removed his right glove — from his saluting hand — and placed it on the edge of Hallquest’s open casket. The gesture, he said, symbolized the firefighter’s hand of strength and honor, and represented the bond that firefighters share.
Mayor Edward Lieberman spoke on behalf of residents. “Michael was, in the words of my forbearers, a mensch — he was a good guy,” Lieberman said. “He thinks beyond himself. He thinks of his brothers and sisters, and the community he serves.”
Sea Cliff First Assistant Chief Mark Vitale began to thank everyone for supporting the late chief’s family during their time of sorrow, but had to stop when he choked up. He and Hallquest had been best friends since middle school.
“He was a very caring and compassionate person that would always help someone who needed it,” Vitale said. “He was always very professional in his demeanor, and would go above and beyond for every call.”
Vitale shared his memories of advancing through the department ranks with his childhood friend, and said it was nice to have someone with whom to share the experience. Hallquest was someone to confide in.
“From the age of 16, going through college, getting married and having kids, we were always there to help each other out,” Vitale said.
“The community, the fire department and his FDNY guys all came together to support him throughout the events that took place over the last eight years,” he said. “Even though he’s gone, there is still a strong tie, because he was a strong presence.”
The service concluded with a procession of salutes from each of the men and women who gathered to pay their respects to Hallquest.
“Sea Cliff has lost a true hero with the passing of Chief Hallquest,” Lieberman said. “The village, the fire department, and all the residents who he served will truly miss his bright smile and zeal for life, love and family.”