07/20/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 09/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Firefighters from across continent attend funeral for slain Montreal colleague

MONTREAL - A Montreal firefighter who died in highly unusual circumstances in the line of action took 16 years to land his dream job — on his 37th birthday.

As thousands of firefighters gathered Friday to pay a final tribute to Thierry Godfrind, the story of his commitment to the profession came to light.

The 39-year-old first tried to become a firefighter in 1994 but found himself with few job prospects at the end of his studies. Godfrind moved on, getting a degree in business administration and working in a field related to his academic achievements.

But the urge to be a firefighter never left him.

That devotion eventually cost Godfrind his life when he was struck July 13 by a fire truck that had transported him to the scene of a blaze.

"It's a calling, it's not just a job," said Richard Liebmann, a division chief with the Montreal fire department.

Liebmann did not know Godfrind, but learned the late firefighter returned to school and earned a college degree in fire prevention in 2008. He spent two years volunteering in a small town before Montreal came calling in 2010.

"He was hired on his 37th birthday (March 15), so it was his dream and even though he tried to do something else, he ultimately came back to the fire service because it was something that called to him very strongly," Liebmann said.

One man who took classes with him in 1994 said Godfrind was courteous and nice and in his element at the academy. Paolo Rehel said the timing was poor as Montreal had gone on major hiring sweeps in 1992 and again in 1994 just before he completed his classes.

"He finished in 1994 and finally found work in 2010, so it gives you an idea of his personality," said Rehel, who now works in the union movement.

"He never gave up, it took him 16 years, but he never gave in, which is really impressive."

Godfrind, who had a very strong sense of family, leaves behind his parents, a sister and a girlfriend.

They gathered with thousands of firefighters from Montreal and across the continent to pay their final respects during a private civic funeral service at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montreal.

Godfrind's casket arrived on top of a fire truck, after an estimated 2,000 Montreal firefighters marched along with colleagues from other cities including Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and some U.S. cities.

It took about an hour for the procession to enter the basilica from where it had begun.

They were joined by other emergency service personnel such as police officers and ambulance technicians.

"It's a fitting tribute for someone who every time he went to work was working for complete strangers, putting himself in danger without knowing people," said Lt. Mike Amesse, a fireman from the west-end Montreal borough of Lachine.

"Thierry's commitment was towards helping his fellow citizen."

Godfrind's death is being investigated by Quebec's work and safety commission as well as the fire department itself.

Many of his colleagues at his fire hall in Saint-Laurent, a district in northern Montreal, have not returned to work since the tragedy. Fellow firefighters said they were devastated, including the driver of the truck that struck Godfrind.

One priest said it was important to have a proper sendoff for Godfrind.

"For a funeral like this, we try to give the family and his colleagues a bit of hope," Father Raymond Gravel said before the ceremony.

"Firefighters are a tight group and some are shocked and overcome by what has happened so my hope is that the funeral gives them a little bit of hope."

Godfrind was the first Montreal firefighter to die in action since 2006.