FDNY Firefighter Who Played Santa Claus for Kids Dies from 9/11-Related Sickness

NY Daily News - January 31, 2018

by NY Daily News

A retired FDNY firefighter who delighted scores of children by dressing up as Santa Claus every year has become the latest first responder to die from a 9/11-related illness, officials said Tuesday.

Ret. Firefighter Ray (Gonzo) Phillips, 64, died on Saturday at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital, family members said.

Phillips contracted asthma during his time at Ground Zero following the terror attacks as he and his colleagues at Rescue 3 conducted rescue and recovery operations.

On Saturday, a particularly bad asthma attack sparked a heart attack, family members said.

Phillips joined the FDNY in 1977 after he was laid off by the NYPD during the city’s budget crisis in 1975.

The FDNY was a perfect fit for the Bronx-born Phillips, said his son Raymond Phillips, who is currently a cop in the 17th Precinct in Kips Bay.

“Ever since he was little, he would go to the firehouse that was right next to his home,” Phillips, 30, said. “He loved the department.”

Spending most of his career in Rescue 3 in Claremont, the towering 6-foot-3 Phillips got his nickname when a co-worker meant to call him Godzilla because of his size, but only came out with “Gonzo.”

The name stuck for a man who was always ready to attend FDNY events, whether as a member of the Emerald Society or as a delegate for his union the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

The die-hard Rangers fan was a mainstay at UFA functions, and was the official Santa Claus for the FDNY Widows & Children’s holiday party.

“He played Santa for the FDNY since 1985, for both the Widows and Children Fund and the Burn Center,” said his daughter Courtney. “My favorite thing about seeing him play Santa was how many kids looked forward to seeing him. They knew that he was the same Santa for all those years and would come and ask just for him.”

“He was an outstanding man and I am lucky to have been his daughter,” she said.

The union in 2017 honored Phillips by naming him UFA Man of the Year, family members said.

“He loved to make everyone laugh and he was always there for you,” his daughter Courtney, 26, said. “I would trade anything in the world to go see a New York Ranger hockey game with him just one more time.”

Phillips is the 166th FDNY member to die from a 9/11-related illness since the terror attacks, the department said.

An additional 133 NYPD members have died of sicknesses attributed to the wreckage of the Twin Towers, police said.

Phillips is remembered by his wife Maureen, sons, Raymond and Brian and his daughter, Courtney.

A wake for Phillips will be held Wednesday at Smith, Seaman & Quackenbush, Inc. Funeral Home in Monroe, N.Y. A funeral mass will be held at 11:30 am on Thursday at St. Mary's Church, 42 Goshen, Avenue, Washingtonville, N.Y.