Engine 55 has a friend for life (Part 4 of a 4-part Sept. 11 anniversary series)
By James Fuller
On looks alone, Joe Cantafio is an unlikely hero.
No cape trails him as he limps through the streets of New York. With knees that should belong to a retired linebacker instead of a stockbroker, it’s Cantafio who is often trailing the pack when the firefighters walk Manhattan.
“Wait, where’s Joe?” They quizzically stop and look around.
Cantafio’s knees aren’t made for walking with guys in such good shape. But when he’s in New York, he’s on his feet at least seven hours a day.
So his pals only smile and razz him while they wait patiently at the stoplight for him to catch up.
Cantafio, a Barrington resident and Oak Park native, is nearing the end of his yearlong concert tour to raise money for the families of Engine Co. 55’s lost men.
The Let Freedom Sing tour is inching up on about 100 performances, many of them a machine-like four hours in length. Some are played with his band Jade; others with just his guitar and an old fire boot for donations.
Through it all he has made Engine 55 the Chicago suburbs’ most popular Sept. 11 charity, collecting tens of thousands of dollars here that he gives directly to the firehouse for the families.
* * *
Cantafio spends a lot of time on the road, shuffling his daughters to family members supportive of his cause. He worries about not being there enough for his four girls, but when he plays locally they are his best roadies.
Stocks are now little more than an activity he squeezes in between half-hour naps. He sleeps in 10-minute cab rides. He has no time for it.
“You know what I mean, Joe?” asks John Olivero, wrapping up a thought while driving Cantafio to a nightly show.
Cantafio’s closed eyes gaze up at the dome light, arms folded on his chest. A snore is his only reply. Olivero smiles and shuts up. Later, on a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty, Cantafio dozes off on a bench. The other guys grin and leave him alone.
“I’ve figured out that I need five hours of sleep to get my voice right for a show,” Cantafio says of the catnaps. “It doesn’t matter how I get it as long as it’s five hours total.”
When he isn’t singing or sleeping, he’s planning, mapping out shows, scheduling venues. He keeps all his contacts in an orange book. It’s the closest thing he has to a secretary.
But why all this for people he never met, faces he’d never seen and a city 900 miles away?
It began with fury.
The morning of Sept. 11, Cantafio sat in front of his television and watched the planes hammer the twin towers of the World Trade Center. First one, then the other, and again, and again, and again as the replays looped throughout the day. Cantafio’s fists tightened, his teeth clenched. He was transfixed, horrified and, in the end, changed.
During Desert Storm, he was a big talker, watching the war from his couch and bad mouthing the Iraqis.
“I’d come home from work and tell the kids, ‘Let’s watch the war,’ ” Cantafio recalls.
Not this time. This time the war hit too close to home. His firm did business with Cantor Fitzgerald, whose offices and work staff were all but eliminated in the holocaust. He had acquaintances at Mainstay Funds. He was working on a deal with a Korean bank and a German bank, both in the World Trade Center. All pulverized and gone.
Firefighters buzzed around the scene, directing people out of the towers in waves, ascending to the hell fires of the upper floors even as the steel continued to weaken. Screaming people ran out. Firemen raced to get in. It was inspirational.
Cantafio has firefighters in his family – cousins, his brother-in-law, a nephew. They weren’t in New York, but he was never prouder to have them in his bloodline.
Those competing emotions battled for release, and in a catharsis Cantafio turned to the medium he knew best – music. Cantafio has played the guitar ever since he learned the six strings from Sister Mary Rose at St. Catherine of Siena School in Oak Park.
In 1973 at Oak Park River Forest High School, Cantafio put together his first band. They scored a gig playing ’50s tunes for a “flashback day.” Soon other schools had the band performing throwback sock-hops. The Jade 50s were born.
The band went on tour nationally with “Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Show” and “Wolfman Jack’s Rockin’ Oldies Show” for the bulk of Cantafio’s 20s. Those were the good old days.
Fast forward to 2001. Cantafio gave up the road years ago and built a decent career in finance, rising to be vice president at Chicago’s One Financial Center. He has custody of his four daughters and a nice house in Barrington.
Following Sept. 11, he went a little nuts. First, he tried to join the Army. At 47, that was no go.
So, searching for good feelings again, his guitar was a natural crutch. Only this time, he played songs like “Dust in the Wind” and “In My Life” instead of ’50s tunes.
His shoulders relaxed. His red face returned to a natural tone. The tears dried up and his mind started working.
The first tentative shows brought in $10 a pop and were played to as few as seven people.
“Is this an audience or an oil painting?” he dead-panned to his smaller, quieter crowds.
But a show here, a show there, and a tour was started.
It needed direction. Cantafio called the New York Fire Department where he was directed to http://www.fdny.org and a list of 343 dead firefighters and their pictures. He printed them all out, tears tumbling down his cheeks as he looked into their faces.
The names went into a hat. He picked one: Chris Mozzillo, Engine Co. 55. The men of Engine 55 would get the money he raised.
He wrote letters to Engine 55, explaining his plan. For a while there was no response. Then, finally, an e-mail came from Olivero.
“We all are very excited and impressed with what you are doing for the families of our fallen brothers,” Olivero wrote.
It was the beginning of a bond that would carry Cantafio through his mission. But no e-mail or phone call could hammer home the deep emotion behind Cantafio’s efforts. He had to go to New York. The firefighters needed help. They had been duped by various charity efforts and only prayed Cantafio was real.
To seal the deal, Cantafio brought the firefighters to Chicago so they could see his shows firsthand. By then, he was organized. His shows were packed. In March, he even had Engine 55 men marching with President Bush in Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Thrilled, afterward Cantafio called his mom.
“Did you see me shake hands with the president?” he demanded.
During Fourth of July celebrations from Bartlett to Barrington to Naperville, Engine 55 men were the guests of honor. There was no doubt that Chicago loved and admired the courage of New York’s bravest. It was time to take the show to New York.
At Cantafio’s shows at neighborhood pubs in New York, the firefighters are at ease. He doesn’t raise much money, but in New York, it’s not entirely about raising money.
The firefighters hit the stage and sing along on “American Pie,” the nightly show stopper. They huddle around, arms on each other’s shoulders, and scream into the microphone.
Cantafio makes a nightly lyric substitute at the end:
“And the three men I admire most – Charlie Ferris, Olivero and Bobby Yost – they took the last train headed for the coast. The day the music died.”
The names are those of three living Engine 55 firefighters. He rotates the lyrics among the men, but his admiration is genuine. They are his heroes.
The guys do Elvis and Mick Jagger impersonations while Joe sings. Hips gyrating, peacock struts. At one show a visiting fireman from Pennsylvania surfs the table during a Beach Boys tune. They toss back beers and dance. They are at ease.
So is Cantafio. The sweat beads on his forehead. He plays from a back corner of the bar, dimly lit and partially obscured by tables and poles.
He doesn’t drink alcohol. Water quenches his thirst but his gulps are always followed with an “Ahhhhh … Budweiser,” or whatever beer is on tap to help sales.
Behind the music, Cantafio is a counselor. During a ride to another show, Paul Quinn, the only surviving member of the engine’s original response team to the World Trade Center, confides in him. Quinn is alive because one man always has to stay with the truck. On Sept. 11, that was him.
He dove under the rig when the South Tower came down. Rescue workers later found him wandering and covered in dust, unable to remember how he got there. Dazed but alive. When the North Tower came down 29 minutes later it buried the rig 40 feet underground.
Quinn has spent months dealing with the confusion and guilt and grief.
“Do you think I’m crazy?” he asks Cantafio. His friend shakes is head.
“No. Whatever’s going on in your head, God bless you,” Cantafio responds.
That night, Quinn sits front row and smiles. By the end of the night, he’s calling out requests and singing solos. Crazy doesn’t look like this.
Cantafio is an angry man. His cries for revenge are frequently sprinkled into monologues with his audiences.
Tuning his guitar for the next song, he launches another volley.
“You know, I think we should nuke the whole country over into glass,” he says of the war in Afghanistan. “Then we can put all the survivors and war prisoners to work grinding it up into sand again.”
When he visits ground zero, the veins in his neck and forehead become visible. He grips the fence tighter and shakes his curly head.
He hugs a complete stranger, Mary Ann Carne, who lost dozens of friends at WTC and now comes to the site once a month to grieve. She lets it all out in deep sobs and trembling tears.
There is another woman, nearly frantic, who scrunches her face and cries. She is from Boston and is guilt-ridden because some of the jets used by the terrorists took off from her city. Her arms wave as if blindly searching for something to embrace. Cantafio reaches out.
* * *
Come fall, the tour will be officially over. It must be, from exhaustion if nothing else. Cantafio’s four daughters, Kim, Laura, Jennifer and Danielle, need his good Samaritan example, but they also need him at home.
If terror strikes again, Joe will play again. If any of the grieving families of Chris Mozzillo, Bobby Lane, Lt. Peter Freund, Stephen Russell and Faustino Apostal need someone to talk to, his number is on speed dial. And, if the firefighters of New York ever need a hand, they have a new brother.
“I think I have a friend for life,” said John Olivero. “Engine 55 has a friend for life. So does New York.”