By Loretta Bonifacio
Jason Cortez, a San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) firefighter-paramedic, died Oct. 7 at the SFFD Division of Training Tower at 19th and Folsom streets after an on-duty pump drill accident.
Cortez, 42, fell three stories after he lost his balance when a water valve’s high-powered stream struck him in the chest. The valve was not connected to a hose.
He was rushed to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, where he later died of his injuries just before 11 a.m.
In an official report, SFFD detailed how COVID-19 restrictions forced a reduction in firefighters during training drills. Eight firefighters were typically involved in the pump drill, but only four participated when the accident occurred.
“Each firefighter was required to carry out tasks individually, which are normally done as part of a team,” SFFD said.
Fire officials staged a memorial procession as Cortez’s body was transferred from the hospital to the medical examiner.
The 13-year SFFD veteran and 3rd generation San Franciscan was born on Sept. 16, 1978 in San Francisco. He grew up in Potrero Hill.
He attended Cathedral School for Boys and Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory. He then went to Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, CA.
Before attending St. Mary’s, Cortez remained in San Francisco. Cortez and his partner, Patricia, “Pattie,” Leung, shared an apartment with friends, LeRoid David and Khalil De Mesa, from 1999 to 2000.
“Jason was such a funny, goofy guy. He was the type to roll with the punches and punch you at the same time,” David said. “We all built this synergy right away.”
David and De Mesa remember their old friend’s ambition vividly. “Jason always talked about working for SFFD to follow in his Dad’s footsteps,” De Mesa said.
“We were so young, but he was already focused on his career,” David added.
Cortez trained in the Paramedic Program at City College and graduated in 2005.
Megan Corry is Program Director of the Paramedic Program, and trained Cortez directly.
“Everyone is just shocked. I’m getting calls from his classmates who work in other states and just heard about it. And they graduated 15 years ago,” Corry said.
Corry reflected on how Cortez’s kindness manifested “in his patient care, friendships, and even if you were just meeting him for the first time.”
“He was such a warm and considerate person who valued family and friendships. It was just who he was, and he did it without any expectation of recognition or appreciation,” Corry said.
Cortez also served as a mentor to interns enrolled in the program.
“Although he was not officially a preceptor, he often mentored interns when his paramedic partner on the ambulance was the primary preceptor,” Corry added.
Cortez’s technical prowess made him an ideal teacher. When his old roommate needed to prepare for his EMT exam, he knew exactly who to call.
“Without hesitation, he helped me study: he brought all his notes, old exams, and some diagrams,” De Mesa said. “He took so much pride in helping me not just pass, but actually understand the material.”
“He was my brother then, and he’s my brother still,” De Mesa added. He now works as a paramedic in Chicago and credits Cortez for helping him pass the EMT exam on his first attempt.
Cortez’s dreams were finally realized when he joined SFFD in June 2007. He worked as an EMT and paramedic on ambulances at Station 49 in the Bayview.
In 2015, he joined the 118th Fire Academy Recruit class and trained in fire suppression. In Jan. 2019, he was assigned to Station 3 in the Tenderloin as a firefighter-paramedic.
“Station 3, Engine 3, is the busiest fire engine in the country,” said Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson. “So that should tell you something about him.”
“He loved his job, he loved the people he worked with, and he loved his family,” Chief Nicholson added. “If I could clone him, I would. He was a really wonderful human being.”
To honor Cortez, flags at the State Capitol and SFFD stations will be flown at half-staff indefinitely.
Cortez is survived by his wife and partner of more than 20 years, Pattie, and two sons, Jackson and Greyson, along with his parents, Gilbert and Sonia Cortez, and brother, Gregory.
A college fund created for his sons on GoFundMe has raised over $295,000, and has well surpassed the original goal amount of $75,000.
All services were private and by invitation only. A family vigil took place on Monday, Oct. 19 at St. Ignatius Church on 650 Parker Ave. in San Francisco.
A funeral service occurred on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at Oracle Park at 24 Willie Mays Plaza in San Francisco, followed by interment at Holy Cross Cemetery on 1500 Mission Road in Colma, CA.
Around the time of Cortez’s death, City College paramedic interns were doing rotations at the Division of Training Tower. For those adversely affected, Instructor Corry suggests connecting with a mental health counselor through the Student Health Virtual Counter at (415) 239-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org.