SI Advance - September 27, 2016by Jim Waggoner
Sam Cannizzaro settled into his seat on the Staten Island Ferry with mixed emotions early Sunday morning.
The retired FDNY veteran of 33 years was making his way to the 15th annual Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Run, where he keeps a tradition of carrying a banner of his late son Brian.
Brian Cannizzaro was a 30-year-old firefighter following in his father's footsteps — even taking his dad's badge number upon joining the ranks in 1999 — before dying on Ground Zero during the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I think he needs to be represented here and as long as I'm able to do it, I'll do it," said Cannizzaro. "It really doesn't give me that much enjoyment. It's something I feel I should do and that's why I do it."
The 80-year-old Cannizzaro said he has long struggled with the loss of his son and that the pain lingers.
"I still can't believe it, really. It's hard for me to believe," he said. "Brian was such a vibrant, talented kid. He married a beautiful girl (Jacqueline O'Mera), had an eight-month-old son ... and everything was just taken away in the blink of an eye."
Cannizzaro said he finds comfort joining ranks with former NYFD colleagues as an estimated 30,000 runners and walkers paid tribute to Stephen Siller, one of 343 firefighters lost on 9/11. One of those men, Tom McGoff, was a mentor to a young Brian Cannizzaro at Engine Company 217.
"I started in 1962 at the age of 25," said Cannizzaro. "I put in 17 years in Manhattan and 16 in Staten Island. In those days, we didn't even wear uniforms. We wore dungarees."
Cannizzaro has been affiliated with the Academy of St. Dorothy for 41 years — as a jack-of-all-trades. He has spent the past 15 years as an assistant pre-kindergarten teacher, a role relinquished by wife Carol in 2001.
"I cut the grass with a push mower, I was a custodian, coach and just about everything in between," said Cannizzaro. "Our three sons went to school there and it's always been a big part of our family."
Cannizzaro hosts an annual golf tourney in his son's honor and spends plenty of time with his three grand-children. Brian Cannizzaro's son, Christopher, is now a 16-year-old junior baseball player at Poly Prep in Brooklyn.
"I can see Brian in him," said the grandfather. "The way he walks, runs, speaks. He has a swagger that Brian had. It's really cool and nice to see."
Cannizzaro was joined Sunday by long-time family friend Sister Caridad Portu, a Sister of St. Dorothy who taught all three of Cannizzaro's children in kindergarten.
And McGoff, an assistant basketball coach at Monsignor Farrell where Brian Cannizzaro excelled in football, was making his own annual pilgrimage to the Tunnel to Towers Run.
"Brian was like a son to me. We worked together at Engine Company 217 and worked security together too," said McGoff, who gives a Brian Cannizzaro Award each year to a deserving Farrell JV basketball player. "He was a tough, polite kid. We put out fires and delivered babies together, from one extreme to the other. He always handled himself well, like a true professional."
Cannizzaro lost his wife Carol to cancer in 2014.
"They say time heals all wounds, but that's baloney," he said. "It really doesn't. It might smooth it out a little bit, but it never heals the pain. People mean well when they say they understand, but they don't really understand.
"9/11 seems like it was yesterday."