He Had an Unshakable Dedication

February 4, 2002

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."

-- Nick Iyer (Newsday)