Former court officer in Riverhead who responded to ground zero after 9/11 dies at 64

William D’Ambrosia spent nearly all of his 34 years as a court officer in the big courthouse on Griffing Avenue in Riverhead. His work with dozens of judges defined his career as a professional. Beyond his job, he was the kind of man who when called upon showed up.

In the days following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. D’Ambrosia – Billy to his many friends – organized a van and took five of his fellow court officers from Griffing Avenue all the way to ground zero to help in what they hoped would be a rescue, not a recovery mission.

“I was at Columbia University that day,” said Mr. D’Ambrosia’s wife, Denise. “Billy felt compelled to help, to save people. He went there on Sept. 12 and 13, then the following week and several days after that, and then on Oct. 4. He drove those other officers to the scene each time.”

On May 4, Mr. D’Ambrosia, 64, died of a complication called sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that affects multiple organs in the body. Since he was first diagnosed with the disease in 2004, doctors told him and his wife that the disease was directly linked to the dust he breathed those days at ground zero.

As it turned out, in what amounts to the continuing toll of that horrific day in 2001, all six of the court officers who drove together in the van have died. “None of them are still living,” Ms. D’Ambrosia said. “It’s an amazing fact – all six have died.

“Billy felt very strongly about helping,” she added. “It was his hope that this would be a rescue mission – that he could save lives. But sadly it turned out to be something else.”

Mr. D’Ambrosia was 25 and Denise 18 when they married. He grew up in Centereach and Shoreham; she grew up in Wading River. He joined the court system when he was 24; Denise embarked on a career of higher education and taught nursing and medical ethics in Suffolk County Community College and Stony Brook University.

They spent most of their married lives in Ridge, where they raised three daughters, Kristen, 35, Dana, 32, and Victoria, 30. He began feeling sick in 2004 and was diagnosed with the disease. Soon it became more and more difficult to work, and he had to retire in 2009. His wife later retired from her job to take care of him.

Toward the end of his life, the disease found its way into his lungs, his liver, spleen and lymph nodes. “In the beginning, I was telling him, ‘Sweetheart, your color is different, you don’t feel well, you have shortness of breath.’ ”

On Tuesday, Ms. D’Ambrosia organized a drive-by wake at Coster-Heppner Funeral Home in Cutchogue. Under state guidelines, wakes cannot be attended by more than 10 people. Owner Karen Heppner helped Ms. D’Ambrosia organize the next best thing — a drive-by past the funeral home. Posters filled with photographs of Mr. D’Ambrosia and his family filled a portico at the funeral home. It was like everyone was inside — except they were in their cars.

“This was our first wake like this,” said Ms. Heppner. “The rules say nothing inside unless it’s a small group of just immediate family. That was not possible with Mr. D’Ambrosia.”

As proof of his many friendships, Ms. Heppner said 100 cars — some filled with two or more people — paid their respects by driving by the photographs and waving to Ms. D’Ambrosia. “It’s the best we can do under these circumstances,” Ms. Heppner said.

After driving home to Ridge and doing her best to collect her emotions, Ms. D’Ambrosia was asked, “How do you want Billy to be remembered?”

Her voice broke. A moment passed as she found her voice again. “How do I want him to be remembered? As a humble, strong, courageous and loving hero.”