The gift of healing from Bravest 9/11 victim

Helped to build burn unit


One-year-old Zariah Blakely scooted around the brightly colored playroom of Weill Cornell Medical Center's burn unit, throwing red and yellow balls to her father, smiling as she banged away with a plastic mallet. She had pink, raw spots on her right cheek, from when she grabbed a bowl and splashed hot soup on herself.
Eugenio Iglesias, 4, walked easily in and out of the playroom, despite the thick garments he must wear for the next year on his torso and legs, where he was scalded when he turned on hot water in the bathtub July 28. Until about a week ago, he had to be carried, but his desire to try out all the toys drove him to mobility.

They played and laughed under the photograph of a smiling fireman and aplaque reading: "This playroom is dedicated to Jeff Giordano, who worked tirelessly for over 18 years to raise funds for the New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation."

Giordano, killed with 11 other members of Ladder 3 on Sept. 11, leaves a legacy of compassionate aid for burn victims, especially the young.

"It's great to see the kids, that the room is being used so well, and to know this place that Jeff worked so hard for is something that will keep going, not something people will forget," said Giordano's wife, Marie, 44, watching the children with tear-filled eyes.

Mary Jos wore a broad smile, as well as pressure garments on her leg, torso and left arm and a protective glove on her left hand, as she peeked in at the kids. She had just completed an hour of demanding therapy, and she has been passing this room for nearly a year.

In the early days, she was wheeled to "the tank" in the room next door for the excruciating, necessary treatment of cleansing the burns she suffered on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center's south tower.

Intersecting lives

Now she comes a few times a week for rehabilitation, greeting and hugging her healers, exuberant at life, with her beaming husband, David, at her side.

Encountering Marie Giordano for the first time, the two spoke about Jos' great luck in escaping the south tower alive, the dreadful adversity of Jeff Giordano's death in the same building and how lives intersect.

Jos and the other severely burned people who survived the twin towers attack also have benefited from Jeff Giordano, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the burn center and its skin bank become a premier facility.

Jos, 54, was one of 22 victims brought to the burn center Sept. 11, and one of the 15 who lived.

"The inspiration we've gotten from seeing these people survive and fight their way back has made a big difference," said Dr. Roger Yurt, director of the burn center.

Jos, a 35-year employee of the state tax department working on the 86th floor of the south tower, was in the 78th-floor sky lobby when United Airlines Flight 175 exploded into the building just feet above her. She was not touched by flames; debris cascaded onto her. She suffered first-, second- and third-degree heat burns on her limbs and back, and shrapnel injuries.

She was one of a dozen people out of an estimated 200 crowded into the lobby who survived.

"I lost a chunk of my upper left arm, all the skin and muscle, down to the bone," she said, gripping the spot. "But 95% hasgrown back. "I'm still building strength. It's hard. The burns itch to the point of pain, and itdrives you crazy."

Forty of the 100 people who worked in her office died in the attack. "Some I knew for 30 years," said Jos, who lives in Battery Park City. "It was rough."

Early on Sept. 11, Marie Giordano watched Jeff, an athletic, youthful 45, on a TV news show.

"He was laughing and telling jokes at a pasta cookoff fund-raiser," she said. An hour later, the towers were aflame on the TV screen and she knew her husband was there.

A day earlier, she had worked a shift at the burn unit, where she has been a nurse for more than 20 years, and saw the nearly finished playroom. She told Jeff how beautiful it looked.

She did not return to the burn unit until last week. The visit proved bittersweet because she and Jeff had spent so much time there.

The couple's mission to aid those injured by fire and heat began when Marie's stepfather was severely burned over half his body in an oil-burner explosion in 1979.

He spent 45 days in the then-recently opened unit at Cornell before he died because of an infection.

The experience inspired Marie to work with burn victims and Jeff to become a firefighter.

He was named a Daily News Hero of the Month in March 2001, for rescuing a college student from a fire in her Manhattan apartment. The student recovered at the burn center.

"Everybody thinks we're the heroes, but the nurses, doctors, technicians, they're the real heroes," Jeff said then. "We just pull people out of fires, but they're going to save their lives."

Marie said the student's parents wrote to her in June. "They said she graduated college, thanks to Jeff's saving her life," Marie said.

'Just a kid at heart'

She said her husband was always aware of the special needs of burned children, from bringing them ice cream to spearheading the effort to build a playroom.

"And he was just a kid at heart," she said, wistfully.

Vivian Youngblood, a recreation specialist who runs the playroom program, said the project started in April 2000.

"We were in a little closet and we wanted a larger room, and people we went to said it would cost $140,000," said Youngblood. "Jeff said, 'That's crazy, I'll do it.'"

"These firemen love using their sledgehammers," laughed Marie.

"Jeff spoke to the builders - let's just say he 'negotiated' with them," said Youngblood, also laughing. "And they changed the price." Jeff made sure the room had safety features, and he was involved in the renovations.

Between 100 to 150 pediatric burn patients have used the playroom since it was finished last fall.

"It has made a huge difference," said Yurt. "It's good for a diversion, but it gets them to exercise, too."

Marie said she'll bring her three children, Victoria, 12; Nick, 10, and Alexandra, 6, to see the playroom someday. "Not now, they have too much pain over their father," she said.

To Marie, the burn unit and playroom are tributes to a life of service and reminders of how, in an instant, that life was cut short.

To Jos, who still has many visits to the burn unit ahead of her as she recovers physically and emotionally, it will always be the place were she won her life back, which is just what Jeff Giordano would have wanted.