Remembering Sergio Villanueva, a Firefighter Whose Smile "Filled The Room With Love"

Remembering Sergio Villanueva, a Firefighter Whose Smile "Filled The Room With Love"

FDNY Firefighter Sergio Gabriel Villanueva. Left: Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, donated by New York Fire Department [FDNY] Family Assistance Unit. Right: Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, Gift of Tanya Villanueva Tepper, fiancée of Sergio Gabriel Villanueva.

Sergio Villanueva embodied his nickname “Big Daddy.” A charismatic guy who spoke with a thick, Queens accent, he loved cigars, soccer and dancing. Yet he was also a sensitive and caring man with bright hazel eyes that “were truly the windows to his loving soul,” his fiancée Tanya Villanueva Tepper asserts. Villanueva lived his life with loyalty, generosity and purpose, characteristics that defined his final act: answering the call as an FDNY firefighter on 9/11.

Born in Bahía Blanca, Argentina, on July 4, 1968, he moved to Flushing, Queens, with his parents and younger brother and sister in 1970. A photo taken soon after their arrival shows a young Sergio with his mother in front of the World Trade Center as it was being built.

Sergio Villanueva and his mother in front of the Twin Towers while still under construction. Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, donated in memory of Sergio Gabriel Villanueva by his fiancée, Tanya Villanueva Tepper.

Sergio, who spoke effortless Spanish, often cooked Italian specialties from recipes he learned early on at his father’s Bayside restaurant, Piccolo San Marino. At his firehouse kitchen in Brooklyn, he was known for his pasta and chicken dishes.

Before joining the FDNY, Sergio had served as an NYPD officer for eight years. He joined the police department in 1992 and worked at the 46th precinct in the Bronx for much of his time on the force. In 1998, he was promoted to detective.

Sergio Villanueva in NYPD uniform with two colleagues. Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, donated in memory of Sergio Gabriel Villanueva by his fiancée, Tanya Villanueva Tepper

“He loved New York, loved his country, loved Queens,” NYPD Lt. Rick Miller told the New York Times, “and he would go hoarse for three days after an Argentine soccer game.”

Sergio’s passion for soccer was deep. He’d parade around his apartment when Argentina’s team scored a goal and cheer with friends at an Argentinian restaurant in Corona during World Cup matches.

donated in memory of Sergio Gabriel Villanueva by his fiancée, Tanya Villanueva Tepper

In 2000, Sergio joined FDNY Ladder Company 132 in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights. When off duty, he helped out at Inner Peace, a gift shop he and Tanya owned together in Jackson Heights. One patron remembers Sergio greeting her with a “huge smile” and an aura “so pure, bright, alive [that it] filled the room with love.”

Sergio first met Tanya at a New York dance club in 1987. They caught up again seven years later and began dating. On the seven-year anniversary of their first kiss in 1994—June 30, 2001—he asked her to marry him. “It was the best night of my life,” she said.

On September 11, firefighters from Ladder Company 132 responded to the burning Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. For Villanueva and six other members of the firehouse, that call would be their final one.

“It doesn’t surprise me that Sergio entered the World Trade Center that morning,” a friend said. “There were people in there that needed help. Sergio would never turn his back on those in need of help.”

Sergio Gabriel Villanueva, in FDNY bunker gear, with his mother at the Fire Academy. Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, donated in memory of Sergio Gabriel Villanueva by his fiancée, Tanya Villanueva Tepper

On September 9, Sergio scored the winning goal for his team at the FDNY Soccer Club’s season opener. Tanya remembers it as a joyful day. She took the last known photo of him later that night.

About that picture, she notes his smile of pure contentment.  “This day … started with him scoring a goal at the FDNY soccer game. And then from there, we went and spent the rest of the day with our closest family and friends celebrating the birthday of the daughter of one of our best friends. And this was when we got home that night. It was about 11:30.”

“I had one picture left in the camera,” she reminisced. “And I can still so vividly remember looking at him through the camera and saying, ‘Smile baby, this is the last picture.’”

By Adam Warner, Editor, 9/11 Memorial & Museum