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Remembering Joe Angelini Jr., A Firefighter Who Died In The September 11 Attacks

DONNA ANGELINI: He was the boy next door. I married the boy next door.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is Donna Angelini of Lindenhurst, N.Y.

ANGELINI: He would cook. He gardened. He fixed cars. He played with the children. He'd walk to the library with the children. He was a family man, was the most important thing to him, and then the firehouse.

SIMON: Joseph Angelini Jr., Donna's husband, was a New York City firefighter, one of 343 firefighters who would die on duty Sept. 11, 2001, among the 2,977 people who would perish that day, day of tragedy before the eyes of the world that fell on their family personally. And a note the next few minutes from that morning may be difficult to hear.

ANGELINI: That was my son's first day of preschool. I was getting him ready for school, and Joe was at work, and it was just a normal day. And one of my dear friends called me on the phone and said, do you see what's happening? I said, no, what? She goes, turn the TV on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRYANT GUMBEL: We understand that there has been a plane crash on the southern tip of Manhattan. You're looking at the World Trade Center. We understand that a plane...

ANGELINI: I saw that one plane had hit one of the towers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Now, I'm told that it may be a twin-engine plane, smash - it looks like it went head-on...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: ...Smack into the World Trade Center.

ANGELINI: I said, oh, my gosh, Joe is not going to believe this. And so I threw a VHS tape in - that's how - and started recording it 'cause I go, he's going to be so mad he missed this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUMBEL: So you have no idea...

THERESA RENAUD: Oh, there's another one. Another plane just hit. Oh, my gosh, another plane has just hit. It hit another building, flew right into the middle of it - explosions.

ANGELINI: The second plane hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RENAUD: That was definitely - looked like it was on purpose.

GUMBEL: You saw a plane...

RENAUD: Yes, I just saw a plane go into the building.

ANGELINI: I called the firehouse right away, and a lieutenant picked up the phone and said, hold on. He said, Angelini, your wife's on the phone. He goes, tell her I'll call her when I get back, and tell her I love her. And that was it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This is as close as we can get to the base of the World Trade Center. You can see the firemen assembled here, the police officers, FBI agents. And you can see the two towers, a huge explosion now raining debris on all of us. We better get out of the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

SIMON: Among the millions who saw those unbelievable events was Joseph Angelini Sr., Joe Jr.'s father and, after 40 years, the most senior member of the FDNY.

ANGELINI: And he grabbed someone else's gear and hopped on the back of a truck and went down there. And he was down there looking for Joey. The first tower collapsed, and he survived that 'cause there was actual footage of him. And when the second tower came down, they were both gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my God. There it goes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBRIS CRASHING)

SIMON: Joseph J. Angelini Sr. was 63. His son, Joseph J. Angelini Jr., was 38. It would be weeks before Donna Angelini could bring herself to tell their three young children that their father was dead. It was six months before her husband's remains could be found and identified in the ashes of ground zero.

Donna Angelini and other women whose husbands had answered the call had begun to try to discover what happened in the towers. A woman came forward to say she had seen Joseph Angelini Jr. and some of his company - Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 - and she came to the firehouse to speak with the wives.

ANGELINI: We just wanted to pepper her with questions - you know, did you see this one? We all had pictures. And we were in our kitchen at the firehouse and were all sitting around a table. She came in, and we were all crying when we met her because she was the last person to see our husbands alive. So what she informed us is that she was stuck in an elevator, and they made a human chain to bring her up out of the elevator shaft. I know that that is true because when my husband was finally recovered, his keys for the elevator, which was to override the elevators, were gone.

SIMON: He died saving someone's life.

ANGELINI: He died saving a lot of people's lives.

SIMON: Can you tell us if over that six months you thought that somehow he might show up...

ANGELINI: Absolutely.

SIMON: ...That he walked out - yeah.

ANGELINI: Nope, 100%. I - initially, it was, oh, Joe's going to be - Joe's going to come home. He's going to survive because he'll be eating rotten fruit. You know, he'll find stuff down there. He's in a void. You know, then the really twisted part of me said they're all being held prisoner and they're going to use these guys for leveraging on releasing somebody or something idiotic. You know, then that went, and then I kept on picturing, you know, him just walking in the door saying, you wouldn't believe what happened to me today.

SIMON: What have these 20 years been like for you and your family?

ANGELINI: Hell. Hell. Every first was horrible for the fact that I didn't have my partner with me. Every first was my heart breaking for my children that they didn't have their father for sweet 16s or first Communions, high school graduation, college graduation. My one daughter got married. Now my daughter's having a baby. I went to the cemetery and I told him. I know that sounds weird, but, you know, he's not going to see that. My daughter's going to deliver her daughter and not have her father there. And my other daughter got engaged, and she's not going to be able to dance with her father at her wedding.

SIMON: What do you want people to remember this weekend?

ANGELINI: About 9/11?

SIMON: Or life.

ANGELINI: Just always tell your people you love them and always kiss them goodbye 'cause that could be the last time 'cause I know the last time I spoke with Joe was at 11 o'clock on September 10. And I told him goodnight, I love you, I'll see you in the morning. And I never saw him again. (Crying) I'm sorry.

SIMON: There's nothing to be sorry about. I can't prove it, but my family and I believe in a world where you will see each other again.

ANGELINI: Oh, I've thought about it multiple times. And this is going to sound horrible, but when a family member - I've had a few pass since then, and part of me got jealous because they got to see him before I did. So I can't wait for that day. I truly can't.

SIMON: Well, it sounds like you've got a lot of people in your life to love for quite some time to come, though, too.

ANGELINI: Yes. My children keep me going, absolutely. I live for them now 'cause there was a time when without Joey - nope. But I've got three beautiful children, and they're part of him, so I'm going to love them even more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Their youngest daughter is now a pediatric ICU nurse, their oldest a flight attendant. Their son is waiting to hear if he'll be sworn in as a firefighter, the third Joseph John Angelini to serve with the fire department of New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Elsewhere in the show, we have the story of Joseph Angelini Jr.'s firehouse. He was one of 15 firefighters on duty that morning. They all gave their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.