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NYC firefighter ‘never gave up’ after 9/11-related cancer diagnosis

Long Beach resident John Moschella was ‘larger than life’


On Sept. 11, 2001, New York City firefighter and longtime Long Beach resident John Moschella was living in East Atlantic Beach when he watched the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center unfold on TV.

“We were off-duty,” recalled his friend and fellow firefighter Jim Faria, Moschella’s roommate at the time.

“We were sleeping, and then Jimmy woke us up, and we put the TV on and saw the tragedy,” said Moschella’s wife, Nan-cy, who was dating him at the time. “I felt like I was sending the guys off to war because they all had to leave — and I was answering phones because all the family members were calling to see if they were OK.”

Moschella and Faria rushed to their firehouse, Engine 257, Ladder 170 in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and then to what was being called the pile, where they spent weeks searching through the rubble for victims.

“We ended up down there, and when [7 World Trade Center] came down, we were running down the block,” Faria recalled. “We were running away from it. We dipped into a bank with a whole bunch of people and [the toxic dust cloud] blew past us. We stayed down there all night . . . and then we were down there over the next few days and weeks.”

Seventeen years after his time at ground zero, Moschella, a 28-year veteran of the FDNY who would have turned 53 last Saturday, died on Dec. 8. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer in 2016 related to his rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center.

Thousands attended his funeral services at St. Kilian Roman Catholic Church in Farmingdale — where he grew up — where he was remembered as a devoted husband, son, brother and friend who left an indelible mark as a firefighter and on the communities where he lived and worked.

“He was beloved by so many,” said Moschella’s brother, Frank. “When they say ‘hero,’ of course they mean it, but I think it was also the fact that he was beloved as a person, coupled with the fact that he sacrificed himself to protect others.”

In addition to Nancy, John is survived by his parents, Salvatore and Marjorie, and his siblings, Frank, Maria, James and Matthew. He was a loving nephew to Fran Stone and Carmella Moschella, and uncle to Mikaela, Elizabeth, Chase, Olivia, Kacie and Celia Moschella; Sofia and Lucia Assalone; Francisco and Miguel Almanzar; and James, Grace and Luke O’Sullivan. He leaves behind many loving cousins, friends and fellow firefighters.

“Up until the end, even though things were very grim, when people would come visit, he would talk about how he was going to beat this,” Frank Moschella said. “He wasn’t in denial — it was always that he was going to continue to fight it up until his last breath.”

Known among his friends as “Johnny Mush,” Moschella was described as a towering and beloved figure in the FDNY. Friends and family described him as “larger than life” and “courageous.” He was a lieutenant with Engine 287 in Elmhurst, Queens, and then captain with Engine 26 in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, known as the “Bat Cave,” where he retired in 2017 after his diagnosis.

“He was highly respected,” said Faria, who graduated from Farmingdale High School with Moschella in 1984. “He wasn’t a loudmouth, but a very funny guy. And he never talked bad about people.”

A Long Beach resident for 21 years, he was also well-known around town for his friendly and outgoing personality, whether he was playing beach volleyball, taking the Polar Bear plunge, working as a bouncer at the Inn or catching a game at a bar or restaurant with friends.

“Anywhere you went in the New York metropolitan area, you would inevitably hear someone shout out, ‘Johnny Mush!’” Frank Moschella said in his eulogy.

A noble career path

Moschella was the oldest of five children who grew up in a tight-knit Italian- and Irish-American family. He played baseball, football, hockey and other sports as a kid. He was a diehard Yankees, Rangers and Giants fan, and remained active in sports throughout his life. He was known as a talented basketball player on the FDNY team.

“He played with Canarsie, and they won a couple of championships,” Faria said.

“He played dek hockey all the time at Nassau-Suffolk Dekhockey in Farmindgale,” Nancy added. “He would play three or four times a week, and he was on a couple of different teams. He said he was going to play dek hockey even in his senior years. The only reason he stopped was when he got cancer.”

Though he considered joining the New York City Police Department like his father, Moschella decided that a career as a firefighter was a better fit.

“Some of it was definitely from a noble sense, wanting to help and serve others,” Frank Moschella said. “The schedule of a firefighter also suited his lifestyle of being very active. And it suited his personality very well in that he’s extremely social and there’s such a strong brotherhood in the Fire Department.”

Moschella began his career in Canarsie in 1990, where he quickly made lifelong friends and worked for 17 years.

“Your first firehouse is . . . where you establish all your initial bonds,” Frank said. “When John got ill . . . the guys from Canarsie that he worked with initially provided a great support network for our family, whether it was driving my parents around, bringing food or coming when John was in home hospice care in his final days.”

Long Beach also suited his active lifestyle, friends and family said, and Moschella lived in the West End and East Atlantic Beach for a while, and later in Executive Towers with Nancy after they married.

“He loved the beach,” Frank said. “There was a great sense of community, and it was pretty convenient to where he worked in Canarsie.”

‘There was still hope’

Moschella’s fellow firefighter and longtime friend Frank Nastro, who lives in Oceanside, recalled how, on 9/11, they and other firefighters searched for survivors in the days after the attack.

“We were detailed down there the first week together — it was crazy,” Nastro said. “We made it all the way to the bottom [of the pile] . . . where the subway is, all the parking garages — it was indescribable. Fires were still burning down there. There was still hope that we’d find somebody in a pocket.”

“The one thing about John that I can say is that on top of being a really fun, great guy, when we were together at a fire or the World Trade Center, he was always a calming influence,” Nastro added. “He never got excited or nervous — he had that special ability to put his fear aside and do his job. He was one in a million.”

He became a lieutenant in 2007 and a captain in 2014. He was known throughout his career for his leadership abilities, and treated everyone with “decency, respect and kindness.”

“The firefighters — not only did they respect him, they loved him, because he was a guy who guys wanted to be like, and he was very well-loved in the Fire Department,” Nancy said. “He was respected as a boss, but he was so personable he made everybody feel loved and welcome, even the new guys.”

“In talking to some of his fellow firefighters . . . during his entire time as a lieutenant and a captain . . . he sent home safely every one of the men who worked for him,” Frank Moschella noted.

In November 2017, thousands turned out for a fundraiser and benefit for Moschella at the Inn to help cover his medical expenses.

“John was always positive in that he was going to beat [cancer], and he never gave up hope,” Nancy said. “He said he wasn’t ready to retire — he would have tried to move up even more. He lived and breathed the Fire Department.”