A fire widow's tribute to her fallen hero

Funeral mass offered in Great Kills for Firefighter Brian Cannizzaro

Friday, November 16, 2001



On the day he proposed to his wife, Brian Cannizzaro took anything but the conventional approach. He convinced an actor to ask his then-girlfriend, Jackie, to marry him while they were attending a Broadway musical.

Three years later, when the couple's son, Christopher, was born, Mr. Cannizzaro took another road less traveled. He convinced a film crew to tape the birth of their son, Christopher, to air on cable television.

And when he worked security on the set of the "Ricki Lake" talk show and trouble erupted one day, Mr. Cannizzaro did not exactly stick to the sideline and watch. Instead, he jumped into an on-stage TV brawl -- to the delight of a cheering audience.

Such an aggressive attitude would have been wasted on a job where one sits still.

Like his father, who spent 32 years in the city Fire Department, Mr. Cannizzaro chose to work for the FDNY. After joining the ranks in 1999, he wound up at Ladder Co. 101 in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

But his career, like so many others, came to a tragic end the morning of Sept. 11, when terrorists slammed planes into the World Trade Center. Mr. Cannizzaro, along with six other men from Ladder 101, never returned. At least four of the other fallen firefighters from the company were from Staten Island.

Mr. Cannizzaro's body was recovered Sunday night from the rubble of Ground Zero. He was one of 343 city firefighters lost in the terrorist attack, 78 of whom called Staten Island home.

The 30-year-old was remembered yesterday during an emotional funeral mass in St. Clare's R.C. Church, Great Kills,

The sounds of bagpipers and drummers could be heard throughout the tree-lined neighborhood surrounding the Nelson Avenue church. Fire trucks hoisted a mammoth American flag from tower ladders high above the street. Below, legions of firefighters in blue uniforms stood at attention, saluting the Cannizzaro family as they entered and left the church.

The mass featured nine eulogies, the first of which was delivered by the former Jacqueline O'Mara, whom Mr. Cannizzaro married in March 1998. They danced that day to the tune of "Beauty and the Beast" -- the musical at which he proposed.

"Our times together as a family were the best I ever had," Mrs. Cannizzaro said, referring to her husband as her "best friend."

The widow described how the couple grew from two college kids who were dating to become the married parents of a 1-year-old baby boy.

"I know, in my heart, you'll be there for every home run, touchdown, every bump and bruise," she said to her spouse yesterday.

Mrs. Cannizzaro remembered that her husband "desperately wanted" to be a firefighter. "It comforts me that you were doing what you loved and you were in the company of such incredible men," Mrs. Cannizzaro said. "Words cannot explain, Brian, of how proud of you I am."

Charles Cannizzaro, an architect, said his brother made such an impression on people, a woman the firefighter met only one time mailed a letter of condolence when she learned the tragic news.

He said his brother had a memorable sense of humor and "lived every moment to the fullest." He noted how he accomplished numerous goals, such as becoming president of his college fraternity, chairing the student union, joining the Fire Department and having a loving wife and son.

"How many people who live to be 100 can say these things?" the brother asked, before turning to his young nephew, adding, "I hope you grow up to be just like your daddy."

Another brother who did not speak, Craig, is trying to join the Fire Department and has said his brother's death only reinforced that intention.

A number of the eulogies touched upon Mr. Cannizzaro's fondness for the Oscar-winning film, "Gladiator," the mythical tale of a Roman general who winds up fighting for his life in the arena. In fact, it was noted that Mr. Cannizzaro jokingly referred to himself as "Maximus," the lead character in the film, following the Ricki Lake Show brawl.

Mr. Cannizzaro's father, Sam, cited his son's experience at the World Trade Center as a parallel to the movie saga. He then told how he was at Ground Zero when firefighters recovered his son's body from a "God-awful place," and that the firefighters repeatedly stood at salute.

"I can assure you, we're not going to rest until they all come home," the father said, adding, "To my gladiator, Brian, I say I love you. You'll always be in my heart."

Firefighters close to Mr. Cannizzaro described him as a strong and determined man who never needed to be pushed -- someone who would keep a fire rig in "tip-top shape," but also provide levity.

They recalled various stories, such as the day Mr. Cannizzaro drove a Fire Department vehicle into a chief's truck, and yet somehow escaped without reprimand. And they mentioned the time Mr. Cannizzaro jumped into a Brooklyn trash bin to smother a fire and leaped out because of a rat -- an effort which earned him a less-than-desirable nickname.

Lt. Thomas McGoff said Mr. Cannizzaro became like an older brother to his own son, while Bill McDermott of the Seton Foundation for Learning recalled the kindness Mr. Cannizzaro bestowed on his mentally handicapped son, Robert. McDermott remembered how Mr. Cannizzaro gave his son a football jersey and hung out with him, allowing his son, at least for a little while, "to be the college student he could never be."

McDermott said his son wore the shirt for eight years, until it was tattered.

Other speakers at the service included representatives of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki, while City Council members James Oddo, Andrew Lanza and Borough President-elect James Molinaro attended. A letter from President Bush was read during the mass.