A Firefighter Who Worked Hard for His Family

January 22, 2002

"Do you want to watch 'Joe'?"

That was Louis Arena's verbal shorthand to his wife. Translation: Do you want to uncork some wine, snuggle on the sofa and pop in the video of "Joe Versus the Volcano." Arena, a 32-year-old firefighter, and his wife, Wanda, didn't have a lot of time together. Arena had a second job detailing woodwork in yachts, His wife works, and they took turns caring for their two children. But when they had a free night, they often spent it with "Joe."

"We've probably watched it a hundred times, no exaggeration," she said of the offbeat Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan comedy. "Louie could say every word in the movie. We're probably the only people in the country who liked this movie."

Arena met his future wife when they were 9 years old, growing up in Staten Island. They were together since they were 17 - June 13, 1987, to be exact. They made the union official with a wedding on Aug. 26, 1995. "We always said we were soul mates," she said. "He was my best friend."

His wife, an emergency medical technician, used to shave his hair in a military brush cut. She reveled in his unique scent. "Everybody made fun of me because I loved the way he smelled," she recalled. "I loved his clothes. He'd say: 'Smell my head.' I'd say: 'Ah! You had a fire last night.' "

The Staten Islanders planned to buy a larger house for their growing children, Nina, 4, and Joseph, 3, and dreamed of retiring to Key West, Fla., and languid days on the beach with watercolor sunsets.

On Sept. 11, Arena and his Ladder Co. 5 rushed from Greenwich Village to the scene of the terror attacks. Not far behind was his 31-year-old wife. As she cared for the injured, she was rock-solid certain that her husband would appear out of the dust and smoke.

"I was sure I was going to find him, this dirty, bald- headed man. I was going to jump him," she said. But as daylight faded, so did her hopes. "It got darker and darker. I didn't think anything was going to take him away from me. I feel like a leg is missing. You have that phantom pain."

In addition to his wife and children, Arena is survived by a sister, Joann Eisinger, and three brothers, Anthony, Frankie and Sal.

-- Ken Schachter (Newsday)