On Sept. 11, 2001, New York City Police Detective Joe Paolillo arrived at the World Trade Center right after the north tower collapsed. Joe’s first thought, his wife Josephine said, was “Where’s John?”
Joe’s brother, John, was a New York City Fire Department battalion chief, his company based in East Harlem. At age 51, John was 14 years older than Joe, who was the youngest of three siblings.
Originally from Brooklyn, Joe was a resident of Glen Head for 21 years. He moved there to be near John, who lived five blocks away.
Joe died on Sept. 9, succumbing to a rare form of cancer that he developed in January, over 17 years after he searched for John at ground zero. He was 55.
Josephine, 52, said he didn’t know there were toxins at ground zero but if he had he would have continued to look for John, who was more than a brother. He was a friend, too, she said.
“[Joe] called me constantly that day, asking if I’d heard from John,” Josephine recalled. “I think he spent that day asking every firefighter he saw if they’d seen John.”
On the day of the attacks, the Police Department gave Joe leave, but he was too upset to stay home, his wife remembered. He went back two days later to ground zero to search for his brother. He would come home every night distraught, Josephine said, unable not to share with his wife the horrors that he saw.
Then he would call his older sister, Sheila Kioskerides, who now lives in New Jersey. Twelve years his senior, Kioskerides had helped raise Joe while their mother worked. He called often during that time, she said, because he probably thought it would alleviate the pain he was experiencing.
The siblings and their cousin Diana Huff, 63, of Staten Island, who also grew up in Brooklyn, had always been close. Huff remains unable to accept her cousin’s death. She said she still remembers when he was born, saying he was adorable, like a little doll.
“It didn’t surprise me that Joe was devastated about John,” she said. “Being a cop, he saw so many bad things, but he told me that I couldn’t imagine what he was seeing down there, that it was horrible. But he had to find John.”
Joe was getting his brother’s badge tattooed on his arm on Oct. 8, 2001, when he got a call informing him that firefighters had found John’s body. They said they believed he had been on the 53rd or 54th floor of the north tower, which Joe had watched collapse. He called Kioskerides and told her he would go alone to identify the body.
“It was our father’s birthday,” she said. “He couldn’t believe he had to deal with the death of his son that day.”
The day was memorable for another reason. Josephine went into labor, and gave birth to the couple’s second son. They named him John.
“Joe said that if John were alive, he’d probably be gone now, from post-Sept. 11 illnesses,” Kioskerides said, “because he would have never left the site until he found every last person.”
Josephine has fond memories of meeting her future husband in 1987, when she was out with a group of her friends in Brooklyn. Joe had joined them that day. “I said to my friend, ‘Oh my God, you have to introduce me to him,’” Josephine said. “He had big brown eyes and a wicked sense of humor. We dated for three and a half years before we got married.”
But Joe changed after Sept. 11. He realized that nothing you did or planned was guaranteed, and that some things are out of your hands, Josephine said. And the tragedy reaffirmed his belief that nothing was more important than family.
Afterward, he cherished the company of his three sons, Raymond, John and Martin, and taking long walks with Josephine. Joe loved music, and added to the music-themed décor of the family’s living room, which included his acoustic and electric guitars hanging on the walls. He learned new songs, and played them over and over until he perfected them, Josephine said.
Joe never worried about getting sick as a result of his work at ground zero, Josephine said, until he heard that others who had been there were dying. Then, last Christmas, he began having trouble urinating, a problem that wouldn’t go away. On Jan. 6 he went to the emergency room, and doctors confirmed that he had urethral cancer, which is rare.
He began chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In July he had his prostate, bladder and urethra removed. Doctors were hopeful that he was cancer-free, but last month they found a tumor on his liver, and his white blood cell count was very high. He returned to Sloan Kettering on Sept. 1, and was soon heavily sedated. He died on Sept. 9.
One doctor at Sloan Kettering was surprised by how quickly the cancer spread, saying he’d never seen anything like it, Josephine said. She believes that in the next 10 years, many others who worked at ground zero will experience similar deaths. “Terrorists killed all of those people when they ran into the towers, nearly destroyed the city, and all these years later people are sick and dying,” she said. “They are still continuing to kill us.”
NYPD Officer Jimmy Blandeburgo, 64, who retired after an injury in 2006, worked with Joe in the 19th Precinct on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They were close friends. Describing Joe as a good cop, someone who cared and was dedicated, Blandeburgo said he has “memories of Joe that will last a lifetime.”
“I can’t say what I’ll miss most about not having Joe around,” Blandeburgo said, his voice cracking.