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Rockville Centre man meets pope before Francis flies back to Vatican

Joseph D'Aleo of Rockville Centre, with his wife

Joseph D'Aleo of Rockville Centre, with his wife Dorothy, left, embraces Erin Carlson of the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich. after the World Meeting of Families Expression of Gratitude event for Pope Francis on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Joseph D'Aleo of Rockville Centre, a New York City Sanitation Department supervisor sick with a 9/11-related disease, shook hands with Pope Francis at Sunday night's farewell event at Philadelphia's airport.

To D'Aleo and his family, the moment was life-changing.

"His hands were so soft -- beautiful face," D'Aleo said. "I totally filled up."

The butterflies in his stomach went away. He felt different and told his wife, Dorothy, as much after his encounter with Francis, who departed the airport shortly before 8 p.m. on his return to Rome following a nine-day trip to Havana, Cuba, Washington, New York City and Philadelphia.

For years, D'Aleo, who helped with the cleanup after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has been sick with sarcoidosis, known as 9/11 lung disease. His office was on Church Street and for a year he cleaned the buildings surrounding Ground Zero, wearing only a flimsy mask. He was misdiagnosed with asthma, retired in 2004 and was diagnosed with sarcoidosis in 2009.

He was teary-eyed, recalling all the hospital stays and pain from his disease. But now that may have changed. One touch from the pope and he felt something. "It's like a feeling that came through my body."

His wife called the couple's two children. "It's just like a sign he's going to be OK," Dorothy D'Aleo said.

"Hope," her husband said. "It gives you hope."

The couple says it's like the Holy Spirit entered Joseph.

"We all feel like a weight has been lifted," Dorothy said. "We all feel like it's going to be OK. I can't explain the feeling of relief."

The brief encounter, during which D'Aleo kissed the pope's hand, was not in the plans, but maybe it should have been. Or was it divinely inspired?

D'Aleo was transferred to his World Trade Center post two weeks before the attacks. When he heard of the pope's visit, he volunteered at the World Meeting of Families and, by chance, was given tickets to the farewell event for the first pope ever to visit the September 11 Memorial & Museum. And the Long Island resident met the pope in Philadelphia.

His description of the brief meeting? "Beyond a dream come true," D'Aleo said.

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