“John Paolillo”

555 Fitness Hero WOD

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  • 12-9-6-3 Reps for Time
  • Cleans (155/105 lb)
  • Pull-Ups
  • Deadlifts (155/105 lb)
  • Burpees

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namesake photo
This Firefighter Hero WOD is dedicated to John Paolillo, FDNY, Battalion 11, who was killed on September 11, 2001.

John Paolillo, 51, of Glen Head, was deputy chief of special operations command for the city fire department. He was killed in the north tower.

There was a 15-year gap between Paolillo and his younger brother Joseph, an NYPD detective. John Paolillo, a triathlete, routinely ran 10 miles a day. Running together became a way for the brothers to discuss life's vicissitudes.

"We used to have this kind of big brotherly talks when we would go on these long runs," Joseph Paolillo said. "I was very shy and just dealing with life's problems, and he had been through it all so he used to give me advice on pretty much everything in life. I mean, he was a father, a brother, a friend."

He filled the same role for his sister, Sheila, three years younger. Before Paolillo married and had his own children - a boy and girl, almost 10 and 8 at the time of his death - and moved to Glen Head, the sister and brother shared a house in Brooklyn. He was like a father to the divorced mother's two children.

When her oldest son was born and ended up in intensive care, her brother was there every day. "He used to go there and hold his fingers and talk to him," Sheila said. "That was the first time I actually saw John's eyes fill up with water."

Their father died in 2005 - his death hastened, they believe, by losing his oldest child - and their mother has never recovered. Almost 10 years later, a huge picture of her son hangs in the front window of her Brooklyn home surrounded by candles. But there have been bright moments. The family has established a foundation that donates $2,500 in his name every year to a senior at North Shore High School.

And there are more personal remembrances. John Paolillo's remains were buried Oct. 10, 2001 - which happened to be his father's birthday. Joseph's wife, Josephine, was 9 months' pregnant with their second child at the time.

"My father pulled her off to the side and said in a half-joking, half-heartfelt way, 'Today is my birthday and for the rest of my life I'm going to remember this day as the day that I buried my son.' He smiled and said, 'Do you think you could have this baby today? This way I could remember it as the day that my grandson was born,'" Joseph Paolillo recalled. Soon after the burial, his wife went into labor. A month to the day after his brother died, Joseph's baby was born. It was a boy. His name is John.

The morning of Sept. 11 began as any other did at Special Operations Command headquarters on Roosevelt Island. Battalion Chief's Aide Steve Modica was making sure that the engines were well oiled, the radio was audible and the equipment functioning properly. When Battalion Chief John Paolillo asked him if he had any plans for the day, Modica responded, "No."

The two men were on the Grand Central Parkway en route to a drill in Brooklyn when they received the alarm for the fire at the World Trade Center. They arrived on the scene a few minutes before the second plane hit Tower Two.

Paolillo and Modica stopped at a command post to receive orders and "were told to help with whatever we could," Modica recalled. The two were on the way up the stairs of Tower One, passing descending emergency police officers and firefighters who had already received evacuation orders, Modica said. Their ascension was halted by the collapse of the second tower, Modica said. "We felt the building shake," he said.

Somewhere between the 30th and 40th floors, he recalled, "A bunch of firemen ran by and shouted, 'Evacuate!' Just the initial tremble of the building would have made anyone want to get out of there." Modica made it out of the building in time.

But Paolillo, 51, of Glen Head, died in the terrorist attacks.
Born in Brooklyn in 1950, Paolillo graduated from St. Steven's High School there in 1968. He moved out of his parents' home there shortly after and began working at an advertising firm in Manhattan, his brother, Joseph, said.

The two brothers, who shared a room until John Paolillo moved out, took frequent morning jogs under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge while growing up, Joseph Paolillo said. On one occasion, while on one of their daily runs, the two brothers witnessed a car careening into a divider on the Belt Parkway. "Before I knew it, John was gone," his brother said. "He was prying open the car door, pulling the driver out, and diverting traffic. He took control of the situation."

The brothers spent the Sunday before Sept. 11 together. Joseph Paolillo said his brother's characteristically laconic hellos and goodbyes were replaced with long-winded chatter. "It seemed like he was dragging me on with small talk," he said. "It was like he didn't want to let me go."

Josephine Paolillo remembered her brother-in-law's unshakable dedication to his family: his wife, Donna, and their children, Jake, 10, and Ella, 8. "He could have come back from taking his kids to soccer, after a 24-hour shift, and he would still be the first one to volunteer to babysit for me," she said.

Paolillo joined the FDNY in 1977. Fearing the lack of job security in the advertising industry, he sought advice from his father, Martin, said Josephine Paolillo. A believer in gritty, sleepless nights, Paolillo studied for four years for his lieutenant's test, his brother said. The long hours without sleep paid off when Paolillo received his test scores. "He missed two questions on that test," his brother said.

Promoted to lieutenant in the mid-1980s, and to captain shortly thereafter, Paolillo "rose through the ranks of the fire department very quickly," his brother said. "Next in line" for the rank of deputy chief, the upper echelon in the FDNY, officials there decided to "promote him to that position posthumously," his brother said. In his brother, Joseph Paolillo saw a kind, giving soul who "always wanted to help people."
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