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Following in the footsteps of fathers lost to 9/11

Inspired by his father, who spent months working at Ground Zero after 9/11, Long Island native Robert Tilearcio Jr. has become an FDNY firefighter. Credit: Corey Sipkin; FDNY

They are the children of 9/11, the sons of emergency workers who died that terrible day or from illness caused by the toxic air around Ground Zero. Now they are men paying tribute to their fathers in the most personal and profound way — by carrying on their work.

Of the 301 firefighters who graduated from the FDNY's academy last month, several — including a half-dozen who live on Long Island or grew up here — had fathers who were either NYPD officers or FDNY firefighters during that fateful time.

They were just kids when their fathers scrambled to respond to the terror attacks 18 years ago. They have jangled, disturbing memories of that time — chaotic reports on TV, a river of people through their house and, for some, the eventual realization that shapes them to this day: Dad is not coming home.

Matthew Jovic was 10 years old when his father was killed responding to the south tower. He remembers his mother picking him up from his school in Massapequa Park. He listened to the helter-skelter reports on the car radio as his mother told him the dire news.

"People attacked the Twin Towers and your father is there," she told him.

Despite those memories, Jovic and the others have chosen to follow in their fathers' footsteps. They've done so, they say, because they were inspired by their fathers. They love the camaraderie that's part of firehouse life, and they feel a need to live a life of service. Beyond that, they want to pay homage to their fathers.

Jovic, now 28, said he holds onto the advice of his father, FDNY Lt. Anthony Jovic: "The best thing you can do is take care of others."

Here are the their stories.

Mike Florio, 24

Son of firefighter John Florio

Mike Florio's boyhood was filled with trips to the firehouse with his father for barbecues, Christmas parties and summer get-togethers. 

His father, John Florio, was known as a jokester in the Brooklyn firehouse that was nicknamed "The Nuthouse." He was the guy blasting Metallica in the gym at 3 a.m. and stenciling the band's symbol on the walls.

Mike Florio, having graduated from the fire academy, is now working in that same Brooklyn firehouse. He works for Ladder Co. 111; his father worked for Engine Company 214 there.

Florio, who grew up and lives in Oceanside, was only 6 when his father was killed on 9/11. He wishes he had more memories of him. That day in 2001, the firehouse lost four members of the engine company and one from the ladder company, he said.

Florio said he feels close to his father at the firehouse.

"I just feel like he's in the house," Florio said.

He inherited his father's badge number — 213 — and wears his necklace that holds a smaller version of the badge.

Most of the crew from that 9/11 era have retired, he said, though some still pop in and share stories. He likes hearing about his dad's energy, his jokes and pranks he pulled on fellow members at "The Nuthouse."

Florio expects he'll soon be on the receiving end of a prank.

"I know it's coming," he said.

Walking through the firehouse, Florio can still see his father's stencils of Metallica. His father's locker remains exactly as it was, like a memorial.

"They asked me if I wanted to take it over," Florio said. "I didn't."

Robert Tilearcio Jr., 29

Son of firefighter Robert Tilearcio

Robert Tilearcio took the test to enter the FDNY fire academy in October 2017, two weeks before his father died of 9/11-related brain cancer.

And when the new graduate faces his first conflagration, he said his dad will be with him in spirit.

"He gave me the passion to want to do this," said Tilearcio, who grew up in Massapequa Park and now lives in Rockaway Beach. "Anytime things hit the fan, I'll be thinking of him. There's no giving up on this job."

Even before the test, Tilearcio was helping those who were sick due to the dust and debris of the place they called the pile. He worked for a law firm, doing community affairs outreach helping first responders and their families receive money from the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

He and his dad took several trips to Washington to press Congress about the health problems caused by 9/11, which he sardonically called "the gift that keeps on taking."

For a long time, his father didn't want to talk about his work at Ground Zero, where he had searched for survivors and remains. It made him weary.

"He took me to funerals, though most were memorials because they hadn't found the remains," Tilearcio said.

His father, who was 58, loved the fire department. He stocked the commissary in his Rockaway Beach firehouse, making trips with his wife and kids to Costco to buy supplies. For Christmas he dressed up as Santa, and in the summertime he filled water balloons for kids at the firehouse picnic.

Tilearcio said he knows he's doing what his father had hoped for his son.

"I just wish he could have seen me graduate," he said. 

Matthew Jovic, 28

Son of FDNY Lt. Anthony Jovic

Matthew Jovic said his mother was hesitant at first about her son becoming a firefighter.

Cynthia Jovic had been watching CNN on Sept. 11, 2001, and when she saw the south tower collapse, she felt deep down that her husband was gone, she said in an interview in 2002.

Matthew Jovic was only 10 back then. He knew his father had been there when the towers fell. But afterward, no one told him his father was dead. As days without him stacked up, the boy figured it out.

Jovic, who now lives in Astoria, Queens, tried some other lines of work — part-time teaching, working with the homeless — but firefighting was always in the back of his mind.

"The older I got, I realized this is who I was, and this is what I wanted from life," he said.

Seeing his enthusiasm, his mother consented.

"She knew how much my father loved it," he said. "She's been supportive and encouraging."

Going through the fire academy, Jovic said he figured out something about his father. As a kid, he had wondered why his father always seemed to have a runny nose.

At the academy, Jovic realized that working with smoke can make a mess of your sinuses.

"It made sense," he said.

Liam Ryan, 24

Son of NYPD Det. Sgt. Michael Ryan

Liam Ryan was inspired by the way his father lived, but also by the way he handled the cancer he got from working at Ground Zero.

"He was still the same person, never taking anything too seriously, making the best of the situation," said Ryan, of Long Beach, who cared for his father through the illness that took his life in 2007.

Even weakened by 9/11-related non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, his father still volunteered as a football coach in the family's hometown of Hauppauge.

"If someone can do that and battle cancer, then I know I can do anything," Ryan said.

Liam Ryan grew up in a home filled with police officers — his father, mother and several uncles. But he wanted to do something different.

He always loved the camaraderie that came with playing on a team, whether it was baseball, basketball or football. And he said he's found that in the fire department. He's been assigned to Engine 304 in Queens Village.

Ryan said he thinks a lot about his dad, who often coached his sports teams.

"It's weird, sometimes I think he's watching me," he said. 

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