Matt LeTourneau’s destiny — to be a firefighter — began on the day of his birth.
After he prepared to enter the world on that day in 1975, his parents rushed to Sacred Heart Hospital in Chester only to find a sea of nurses and doctors crowding the parking lot.
“Go figure — the hospital was having, at the time, a fire drill,” his brother, Luke, explained Friday. “His calling was known even from the womb.”
Luke LeTourneau shared the story with about 1,000 firefighters in their dress uniforms, family members, friends and other mourners who packed the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul to say farewell to Lt. Matthew LeTourneau, six days after he died from injuries sustained in a North Philadelphia rowhouse fire.
They filled the church – and led a procession to his burial in a Delaware County cemetery — on a dreary, rainy day almost appropriate to mark the first loss of a city firefighter while battling a blaze since 2014. And he was one who gave tirelessly to the vocation.
LeTourneau, 42, was someone who “lived, ate, slept, and breathed this job,” said Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, eulogizing a man he called “our fallen hero.”
But LeTourneau was also remembered as a warm-hearted friend who “never wanted anyone to feel left out” and had a “goofy” sense of humor, according to his brother. LeTourneau didn’t have any kids, but loved playing with his nieces and nephews, his younger sibling said.
“Some of the fondest moments would be when he would just stop over the house unannounced,” Luke said. “He’d open the door, get the kids all riled up, go play basketball outside, block their shots in a funny way, and at the same time, the dog would be barking and acting crazy because he was so excited to see Matt, all while the baby was napping. Then, Matt, with such a huge smile on his face, would say, ‘OK, I’ll see you later, guys.'”
An 11-year veteran, LeTourneau had most recently been assigned to Engine 45 in North Philadelphia and was preparing to move to a new assignment in Mantua.
Early last Saturday, he answered the call for a fire on North Colorado Street. Temperatures were below freezing, and firefighters were met at the two-story rowhouse by orange flames and black smoke.
When the second floor of the home collapsed, LeTourneau was trapped inside under the rubble. It took firefighters and paramedics 30 minutes to get him out, and he was pronounced dead later that morning. A man who lived there, 61-year-old Delgera Lane, also died in the blaze.
Since age 4, LeTourneau had dreamed of becoming a firefighter like his grandfather and great-grandfather, according to his family. At age 16, he began volunteering with the Springfield Fire Company in Delaware County, where he was considered a lifetime member.
He joined the Philadelphia Fire Department in 2007 and was promoted to lieutenant in 2015. Before Engine 45, he had also served with Engine 43 in Center City, Engine 57 in West Philadelphia, and Ladder 77 – “the pope’s detail” during the World Meeting of Families in 2015.
On Friday morning, the line of mourners waiting to pay their respects stretched down 18th Street and around Race Street. Some had met LeTourneau through his service as a fire instructor with the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center or the Philadelphia Fire Academy.
As he waited in the falling rain, Assistant Chief Steve Miller of the West Whiteland Fire Company in Chester County said LeTourneau was “by far the best instructor” he had ever had, while also being “down to earth and overall, a great guy.”
During the Mass, the Rev. Dennis Gill, rector of the cathedral, recalled how “courageously and so valiantly” LeTourneau acted on his final day, and urged his family: “Let’s not forget God is here.”
Mayor Kenney, whose father was a firefighter, didn’t know LeTourneau, but told those gathered that over the last few days, he had learned of LeTourneau’s love for animals, his devotion to Holy Cross parish in his native Springfield, and most of all, of LeTourneau’s “selfless devotion” to firefighting.
In his own childhood, Kenney said, he “often woke up to the smell of smoke singed into my father’s bunker gear. That sickly smell of smoke was a good thing. Because it meant he had come home. Matt did not go home Saturday. And, for his family and friends, there is no solace. And there are no words.”
Following the Mass, LeTourneau’s flag-draped casket was placed by firefighters onto his Engine 45 fire truck. With a police motorcycle escort and rows of firefighters in salute across from the cathedral on 18th Street, the procession slowly made its way to SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery in Marple Township.
LeTourneau, the Fire Department said, will be posthumously promoted to the rank of captain at the department’s semi-annual promotions ceremony on Jan. 26
Sergio Ora, a firefighter with the Lionville Fire Company in Chester County, said LeTourneau was a friend who “would give you the shirt off his back.”
Chris Lamb, an apprentice firefighter with the Chester Fire Department, said that as an instructor, LeTourneau was “very supportive, well-read and studied. He wanted to know everything.”
“He will truly be missed,” said Lamb.
Staff writer Joseph A. Gambardello contributed to this article.