May 6, 2002

WTC Aid Workers Headed to Altar

Filed at 7:39 a.m. ET

NEW YORK (AP) -- It all started with a Christmas Day massage at ground zero.

Now, Dawna LoPiccolo, who soothed exhausted firefighter John Mraz amid the debris of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, is planning their wedding.

``I met John in a 20-by-12 wood shack at ground zero. He was the last man I massaged that day,'' said LoPiccolo, a message therapist who had volunteered to help rescue workers after the attacks.

The single mother of a 2-year-old girl and Mraz, the widowed father of a 7-year-old boy, want to exchange vows under the cross-shaped metal beams pulled from the debris.

After volunteering her massages for months wherever they were needed in the devastated city, she asked to go to ground zero again in December.

``I was driven. I said, 'I want to go back to ground zero on Christmas.' Something kept pulling me,'' she said.

As LoPiccolo walked past the debris on Christmas Day, she saw Mraz ``sitting there, taking a break from raking through the rubble,'' she remembers.

Having lost 25 firefighter friends, he was in a lineup of rescue workers waiting for a massage. ``It was cold, and I rubbed his shoulders, his hands. I said, 'Don't worry, sweetie.'''

Then, before returning to work, ``he gave me this hug that knocked my socks off!''

He scribbled on her hardhat, ``It was worth the wait,'' and signed it ``John, Engine 248.''

The 42-year-old firefighter, who lost his wife of 19 years last May, said he ``wasn't out looking for anybody.'' But he couldn't forget the woman who had warmed his aching muscles on that winter day.

Three days later, he phoned another firefighter who knew LoPiccolo. Within 10 minutes, not knowing he was looking for her, she called the same firefighter, ``and I said, 'Do you remember that guy John from Christmas?''

Their first date, just after New Year's, lasted 11 hours.

Instead of the planned dinner at a Long Island hotel, said LoPiccolo, ``we sat at the bar from 7 to 1:30. Then we went to the lobby and sat there talking till 6:30 in the morning.''

Said Mraz: ``It was like I knew her my whole life, like I knew her from a past life. She is my angel of the ashes.''

Last month, LoPiccolo moved into the Brooklyn firefighter's home.

With a September wedding in mind -- a Roman Catholic ceremony under the ground zero cross, they hope -- he decided to give her an engagement ring.

But the 35-year-old woman who grew up on Long Island, didn't want a diamond. Instead, her ring is set with a gold-charm Maltese cross -- the badge emblem of the New York Fire Department -- and Mraz's four-digit badge number.

The debris at ground zero is almost cleared now, with the last bodies of victims being buried and Mraz ``raking the last of the rubble,'' said his fiancee.

``We want to share our story because we want to show people that something good came out of the terror,'' she said. ``In the darkest of places, we received such a wonderful gift for Christmas.''