When the call went out from New York for volunteers to travel to the epicenter of the pandemic in the fight against COVID-19, from 1,800 miles away, Paul Cary raised his hand.
On March 28, the veteran paramedic got in an ambulance and drove for 27 hours straight from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to New York City, trading shifts at the wheel with his colleague. They were part of a fleet of 29 private ambulances and 72 medics from across the country, from the company Ambulnz, headed there to ease the burden on the city's overwhelmed EMS services.
And from the moment Cary arrived, before they had even gotten settled, "Paul just kept asking, when are we going out in the field?" said Ambulnz CEO Stan Vashovsky.
Cary would spend his final days in the field on the streets of New York, tending to coronavirus patients in the back of his ambulance as it raced from hospital to hospital.
He worked until he fell ill with the virus himself.
Cary, a 66-year-old father of two and grandfather of four, died of COVID-19 on April 30 after spending several days on a ventilator at a New York hospital.
On Sunday, a procession of ambulances and firetrucks carried him home to his family in Colorado. After a long journey from New York, he arrived at a Denver funeral home in the back of an ambulance, his casket draped in an American flag. New York EMS workers and a state health official came to pay their respects to Cary's family in person.
His family said in a statement that they were devastated by his loss, but that they knew Cary "risked his own heath and safety to protect others and left this world a better place."
"We are at peace knowing that Paul did what he loved and what he believed in, right up until the very end," the family said.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking at a news conference in New York on Friday, vowed to erect a special memorial to honor Cary's sacrifice, saying he and the city would be forever grateful that Cary answered the call of duty from so far away.
He is among countless first responders and health care workers who have traveled to New York in one of its darkest hours, de Blasio said, but while "so many people came to help ... Paul gave his life for us, and we're going to honor him in a particular way."
"There's something particularly painful when someone does the right thing, when a fellow American comes from across the country to try and help the people in New York City, and while working to save lives here, gives his own life," the mayor said. "It's very painful, it's heroic, it's something we honor, but it's very, very painful that we've lost this good man."
Paul Cary, son of a Denver firefighter, was born on May 15, 1953 and spent his life in Colorado, his daughter-in-law, Gina Yeater-Cary, told The Washington Post. Inspired by his father's lifelong public service, Cary followed in his footsteps and served with the Aurora Fire Rescue for 32 years. He always "epitomized what it means to be a firefighter," serving the people of Aurora with empathy in their most dire moments until his retirement in 2010, his former captain, Ray Barnes, said during a ceremony Sunday night.
But Cary didn't really "retire," Yeater-Cary said. He just cut down his hours, trading the double duty of a firefighter-medic for ambulance work alone at private companies, she said.
"He never really took a break," she said. "I used to joke that he just went from working full time to part time. It's one of those things when you have the drive and you have the heart for it, you can't not answer it. It's just something you have to do."
That's why everyone in the family understood why he had to go to New York. He made the decision with little hesitation, undeterred by the risks, Yeater-Cary said, and his family fully supported him.
At the time he and his Ambulnz colleagues left Colorado for New York, the city was experiencing 911 call volume that rivaled or eclipsed that of 9/11 — "the highest number of 9-1-1 calls in the history of New York City," de Blasio said Friday. "We needed every hand on deck."
Ambulnz was part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency relief program for New York EMS workers and hospitals, transferring COVID-19 patients from hospitals that were at capacity to other hospitals with more room. In between, they also answered 911 calls across the city; Cary and his crew from Colorado were based in the Bronx, his colleague, Royce Davis, told The Post.
Davis, 50, said that Cary was the elder and mentor figure of the group, with more experience than most of the paramedics who came out to New York. They shared dinners together after long hours in the throes of the crisis, preferring to talk about kids and grandchildren rather than the horrors of what they saw each day, Davis said. Cary was quiet compared to the younger crowd, he said, but his devotion radiated widely.
"His love for this job, and his love for serving people, kept reminding me of why I'm doing it," Davis said.
On Sunday, Davis served as a pallbearer in Cary’s procession — an astounding miles-long send-off organized by Cary’s colleagues at Ambulnz and the New York City Fire Department, which treated the Coloradan as one of their own.
It started at a Staten Island funeral home, and as the procession of dozens of ambulances advanced through New York, people cheered from the sidewalks, while some stood at attention at the end of their driveways, Davis said.
Cary's ambulance pulled onto the tarmac at Newark International Airport, where at least three dozen EMS workers stood saluting. The bag pipes blared "Amazing Grace," while Davis and the other pallbearers carefully lifted Cary off the ambulance and toward his last flight, which would arrive by nightfall in Denver, where still dozens more EMS vehicles awaited him.
Around 10 p.m., the long procession finally arrived at its destination. Cary's family and dearest colleagues and friends stood outside the Denver funeral home silently, watching Cary's arrival.
On behalf of the state of New York, a state health department official, Steve Dziura, took the podium and said, "We could all be a little more like Paul."
"Paul raised his hand. At a time when the nation was in crisis, and the world was unknown, Paul raised his hand," he said, before presenting the state flag to Cary's son, Christopher Cary, who broke down in tears in a long embrace with the New Yorker.
The brief ceremony came to a close as a Colorado EMS worker held up a dispatch radio, paging all Colorado fire and EMS first responders.