This article was originally published in Newsday on March 19, 2005
Ann Marie Vitale could not be there.
Neighbors were, though, and kept her memory alive by wearing pins with her picture as they watched bulldozers tear away at the 800-square-foot home in St. James that she once shared with her husband, John, and their three sons.
The home was chosen to be rebuilt by ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Crews arrived at the house Friday to begin demolition.
The Vitales planned on having their home remodeled and enlarged last year, but last March, a week before construction was to begin, Ann Marie, 28, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. The family canceled construction to pay Ann Marie's medical bills.
Ann Marie died on Aug. 3, and neighbors contacted the ABC show known for coming to the rescue of tragedy-stricken families. The episode is scheduled to run in six weeks.
Hundreds of supporters, including Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, showed up for the morning's demolition.
"I cannot believe how much of the community is here," said the show's building and planning designer Constance Ramos. "We've never seen this kind of response the very first day."
Alure, a Hicksville-based company, is donating building materials, and its employees are donating their time to the project. They are working 12- to 18-hour shifts.
Sal Ferro, the company's president, keeps a copy of Ann Marie's picture in his wallet to remind him of the project's meaning. "This is not something you do to make the phone ring," Ferro said. "We do this from the heart."
John Vitale, a Suffolk County police officer, and the couple's sons, ages 4, 2 and 1, had moved in with Ann Marie's parents in Levittown in January 2004 so their remodeling plans could go forward.
"He didn't want to come back here without her," said Ray Lohman, Ann Marie's father, who also said Ann Marie did not want her husband to sell the house if she died. "She wanted to be able to find him."
On Wednesday, the finished 2,400 square-foot product will be revealed and John will be able to move in and raise their children.
"Johnny's a great father and he had a wonderful wife and leukemia took her away from all of us," said David Zack, a neighbor. "She loved it here."
Zack's wife, Diane, could not help but think of what a new home will do for the family.
"The boys are going to get to grow up on a block where we not only knew [their mother], we loved her," Zack said.