North Bergen, N.J.-- He signed his name with deliberate swirls and flourishes, pronounced his catchphrase, "Smarten up!" with a nasal twang and loved his side job as an electrician.
Those who knew fallen Firefighter Vincent Neglia said he embodied the imperfect, irrepressible spirit of this Hudson County town.
On Thursday, Neglia, 45, had his final homecoming at Our Lady of Fatima Church, a tribute to the first North Hudson firefighter killed in the line of duty in almost 30 years.
Outside, as a steady drizzle fell, more than 3,000 firefighters from throughout the region transformed three blocks of John F. Kennedy Boulevard into a sea of navy and white. Inside, with Governor Corzine and other dignitaries looking on, the Mass celebrating the 18-year firefighting veteran was equal parts tears and laughter.
"To talk to Vinny was to hear his opinion whether you wanted to or not," said North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Chief Brion McEldowney. "No matter who you were or what your rank, he was going to tell you what he thought."
Neglia's roots in North Bergen, where he lived until moving to Lyndhurst about eight years ago, ran deep. The son of an Italian immigrant, he grew up in a one-story house with four siblings, rising early to deliver papers for the now-defunct Hudson Dispatch. After graduating from North Bergen High, he worked briefly as a paramedic and then in the Paramus post office. Neglia's dream, though, was always to get a call from the fire department, said Albie Ariza, his closest friend since childhood.
When it came, colleagues said, Neglia grew into the kind of firefighter almost everyone wanted by their side, tough and fearless, as well as someone people could depend on for a shift swap. And he was brash.
He was the type to speak up at meetings, "opinionated and overbearing," said Timothy Steinel, Neglia's captain at Engine 13.
"But it didn't matter because we all knew he had a great big heart," Steinel said.
Neglia was killed Saturday by a fire in a three-story apartment building in Union City.
On Wednesday, the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office said the fire appeared to have been started by a burning cigarette or match tossed into an air shaft. The residents in the building, on Bergenline Avenue, smelled smoke and evacuated, but Neglia and a team went in after being told there were people inside.
When Neglia entered a third-floor apartment, only wisps of smoke were visible, but flame suddenly poured down from the ceiling -- so strong that a firefighter behind Neglia was forced back through the door and down the stairs, McEldowney said. Firefighters finally used a ladder to pull Neglia from a window, but he died a short time later at the hospital.
"It was timing. If he had got in earlier or later we wouldn't be here," McEldowney said Wednesday.
At the end of Thursday's service, the 330 members of the North Hudson department filed past his casket, the sound of bagpipes broken occasionally by relatives and friends weeping aloud. A procession then marched down Kennedy Boulevard, past Neglia's firehouse at 75th Street and Hudson Avenue. He was buried at Garden of Memories mausoleum in Paramus.
Neglia's life wasn't perfect, family and friends said. A nagging shoulder injury needed surgery and relegated him for stretches to "light duty," a euphemism for desk work. But outside work, Neglia was a "perpetual kid" who developed affinities for an 18-foot jet boat, a Harley-Davidson and most recently remote-controlled helicopters.
"But to be honest ... he crashed [the helicopters] more often than he flew them," Steinel said.
Neglia's devotion to firefighting, mourners said, often moved colleagues and served as an example to others.
Robert Velez, 33, who has been waiting to be called up to the fire department for almost five years, talked about seeing Neglia less than a week before the fire.
"He kept telling me, 'Don't worry, you'll get in. It's all going to work out,' " said Velez. "It really lifted my spirits."