By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
BROOKLYN, N.Y., May 21, 2013 – Former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant and retired New York City fire captain John Vigiano is all too familiar with what he calls bad days.
Speaking after the Armed Forces Wounded Warrior Mural Dedication Ceremony at the William McKinley Intermediate School here, the soft-spoken, silver-haired veterans’ advocate discussed his experiences as military member, first responder and grieving father.
Having spent nearly four decades as a firefighter in Brooklyn, he seldom considered his life-saving responsibilities as work so much as a passion.
“Thirty-six years … I think I went to work five days, maybe six,” Vigiano said. “The rest of it was just great.”
Other days, he remembered, were not so great.
“Those were days of pretty significant losses,” Vigiano said. “When a fireman dies in your hands, you never forget that. It’s not a good day. The first time you find someone burned to death, it’s not a good day.”
But nothing, he said, could ever prepare him for the events of Sept. 11, 2001 –- the morning that both of his sons, John Jr. and Joe, perished in the line of duty while saving lives as the World Trade Center collapsed.
“9/11 will take me to the grave; both my sons were killed that day,” he said, his head lowered. “You go to bed saying, ‘I hope I don’t dream about it again, but you do.’”
John Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps as a New York City firefighter, while his younger brother, Joe, served as a detective in the New York Police Department. That particular morning, Vigiano was home watching the tragedy unfold with the rest of the world.
“The police department took my wife and me down to headquarters that afternoon and I stayed there until they closed the site,” Vigiano said. “Everyday from 6:30 in the morning to midnight, I’d walk the pile.”
At his wife’s request, he did not dig.
“She said, ‘if anything happens to you, I have nobody,’” he recalled. “So I just stood in the back and when a body was recovered, I’d go down and say a prayer and go back.”
His voice trembling, Vigiano said rescue teams found Joe’s remains, but they never found John Jr.
The elder Vigiano said his young granddaughter grew to comprehend that the spirit of her father lives on.
“That’s taken a lot to try and explain to her that his soul is still with us – that the body doesn’t mean anything,” Vigiano said.
Still, John and his wife of 50 years, Jan, pray for the day they find the bit of DNA that can finally bring them some closure.
“My wife and I bond together and we had 34 and 36 great years,” Vigiano said of his sons’ respective lives and, ironically, John Jr’s badge number, 3436.
“The last words that I spoke to my sons: ‘I love you’ and they said ‘I love you. It don’t get better than that.”