"Greater love hath no man more than this;
that a man lay down his life for his friends."
Detective Joseph Vigiano had 14 years in the NYPD, but it was the odd career path he chose on the job that helps demonstrate who he was.
Joe’s love of service led him to the police department, where he worked in the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn, one of the busiest precincts in the five boroughs of New York. As one of New York’s most highly decorated officers, making Detective was inevitable. After working in Robbery and, briefly, Homicide, he sought a transfer to the Emergency Services Unit. For a detective, especially one as highly regarded as Joe, to join ESU was unusual, since the function of ESU is to provide rescue and SWAT services, not solve crimes. In fact, at the time he transferred, there were no detectives in ESU. So why did he make the move?
The answer is found in the man himself. Transferring to ESU was not a career move; it was a human move. The paths that led to this move came from his family background. Joe’s father was a retired Marine (there are no ex-Marines, after all) and Joe had a profound respect for military service. He viewed the military as the road not traveled, and believed it to be a high and honorable service. His brother John was one of New York’s Bravest, in the New York City Fire Department. Joe was also a volunteer fireman in his own community. ESU provided Joe with the dream job of being able to fuse all of his career loves: the military-like precision of the SWAT team combined with the task of rescuing people in need. He got his transfer and was assigned to Truck 2. For Joe, it was all about helping people, and when the job called he was all business, all the time.
But there was another side to Joe when he had some down time. Joe was a cut-up. He played practical jokes, and was seen around the offices wearing novelty nose/glasses and doing imitations. The brass was frequently the target, but the jokes were accepted with good grace because they were never intended to hurt, only to make people laugh. The police need humor, especially in places like New York where so much bad can happen so quickly, and Joe was a man who provided many great laughs. Humor serves to remind those in the trenches that there is light and joy in the world. It takes them out of the mean streets and deposits them, however briefly, in a happier place.For Joe, the happiest place of all was with family. His wife Kathy was also a police officer, and he had three children. Both Joe and his brother John had been Eagle Scouts, and now Joe was volunteering as an assistant Scoutmaster for his children. His youngest, at only 3 months, was still some time away from donning the uniform.
One of the many difficult aspects of being a police officer in a huge metropolis like New York is that the job is harshly intrusive on your personal life. Work schedules change rapidly, weekends have little or no relation to Saturdays and Sundays when the rest of the world is relaxing, and always there is the overtime that keeps you head down in paperwork instead of hanging out with your family at the barbecue. Joe’s way around this was to plan vacations with his children that would be memorable. He knew that the job would keep him busy, and there would be missed class plays and family functions, so the time he spent with his family was time he wanted his kids to remember. One of his favorite vacations was to take the kids to visit some of the old warships that are now tourist destinations, from Old Ironsides in Boston to some of the battleships of more recent vintage. As a former young boy myself, it’s difficult to describe the thrill boys can get from seeing this kind of stuff. Clearly Joe knew that, too, and wanted to give his kids vacations where they would not only be entertained, but also learn about history and maybe gain some of that same respect for our military that ran in the Vigiano family.
On September 11, 2001 Joe was on the job, looking forward to a Scout meeting scheduled for that night. As part of the Emergency Services Unit he went to the Trade Towers to assist in the rescue. There was so much mass confusion in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Were there thousands of people in the Twin Towers, or tens of thousands? So much has been written about the awful toll in life that day that one thing is consistently overlooked: 9/11 was one of, if not the, most successful rescue operations in history. Thousands of people died that awful day. Many thousands more were saved by people like Joe Vigiano and his fireman brother John, who also died that day.
Joe’s death represents the loss of all those people who died that day. He was a man who showed up for work that crisp, clean, late summer morning. He was a policeman, he was a fireman, he was an EMT. He was a brother, a husband, a friend. He was a joker, a prankster, a lover of America’s armed forces, a Scoutmaster. He was a son, he was a father. His loss cannot be calculated. It is now eight years later and his friends and co-workers still miss that man with the great sense of humor, the man who could be counted on to have your back. His wife Kathy misses her husband. His children, John, Joseph, and James, miss their Dad; they always will.
I never met Joe; never knew him. Writing this insufficient tribute has brought him alive for me. From what I understand about the man, duty and responsibility were very high on his list of priorities. It was his duty to go into Tower 1; it was his responsibility to save as many people as he could.
It is our duty, and our responsibility, never to forget him.
There’s a full list of participants for Project 2,996 here. Take some time to go through them and remember.