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Coronavirus Victims: Firefighter And Emergency Medical Technician Israel Tolentino

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At the age of 5, Israel Tolentino Jr. had his future figured out.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A small fire had broken out in his backyard. And little Israel, he picked up a pot, filled it with water and rushed to put the brush fire out. His wife Maria Vazquez says that's when he knew.

MARIA VAZQUEZ: For him, just the experience kind of let him know, like, confirmed to him that this is what he wanted to do. And for his whole entire life, he's always wanted to be a firefighter.

CHANG: Front-line workers like Tolentino are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. He fought fires and was also an EMT, and he lost his life to COVID-19 in March.

KELLY: Tolentino served as a Marine. He later went on to take an EMT job at St. Clare's Health in New Jersey. And finally, in 2018, he achieved his lifelong dream and became a firefighter for the city of Passaic.

VAZQUEZ: When you take a little kid into a candy store and you see the excitement on their face and you tell them they can have whichever candy they want, that's how he felt.

CHANG: He was Izzy to his family and friends. They remember his infectious smile, his selfless spirit and his ability to make everyone laugh no matter the situation.

VAZQUEZ: You know, there was nothing too small for him or too insignificant. If it could make someone's day better or it could make somebody - ease a little bit of their load, then he was there, you know, to help in whatever he can.

CESAR PEREZ: It was all about having fun and enjoying our work, you know? It made the time go by, definitely made it go by faster. It was always a pleasure to work with him.

KELLY: That is Tolentino's friend and former EMT partner, Cesar Perez. Izzy was the first. A week later, another EMT they worked with, Kevin Leiva, also died of COVID-19. And Perez says that when all this is over, he wants people to remember the ones who put their lives on the line to help their communities.

PEREZ: We can't forget the many families because these people have done the ultimate sacrifice for their community and for fellow EMTs and firefighters. So we've got to remember them.

CHANG: Israel Tolentino was a firefighter and an EMT. He died on March 31. He was 33 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.