NEW YORK — “Am I loving you enough? Are you feeling loved? Is your faith strong?”
Those are the questions Jean Palombo asked her 10 children in the years that followed 9/11.
Her eight boys and two girls ranged in age from 11 months to 15 years when they lost their father on that fateful day. Frank Anthony Palombo was 46, a firefighter, and the family rock.
Jean’s worst fear was that someone would question her ability to raise her children by herself. That they would be split up, placed in separate homes, if the state deemed her inadequate. How could a grieving widow stand up to such an enormous task?
But Jean had grit. And she had faith. She relied on all of that, and then some. She thought of the love she and Frank shared for 19 years and the lessons learned. “God provides,” he always said.
Just days before he was killed, she told him: “Everything’s easier together.”
Together, she and her 10 children forged ahead. There were others who pitched in: relatives, firefighters and church members. But everyone says it was Jean’s steely resolve that kept her children on a good path.
Eight years later, the family took another blow: Jean was diagnosed with colon cancer. Excruciating chemo treatment and multiple surgeries followed. When her cancer was in remission, the family jetted off on vacations. The Turks and Caicos. California. Disney World. Life was too precious not to enjoy the moment.
She became even more loving as the cancer worsened. She told her older children not to feel sorry for the youngest “because they had a better mom.”
“Look what we’ve been through together,” she told them all. “You’ll be fine. Be grateful. Sometimes things go wrong. Love life, and do the best you can.”
This time, they got to say goodbye.
On August 8, 2013, the children gathered in their mother’s bedroom. Nearly 100 friends from church crowded their Jersey home and sang hymns.
At 53, Jean mouthed a Psalm before taking her last breath.
Her oldest child was 27 then; her youngest, 12.
The Palombo 10 rallied. Again, they weren’t about to allow themselves to be separated. From the oldest to the youngest, the siblings agreed to raise one another.
A party of 10.
Anthony is the oldest and studying to be a priest. Frank Jr. is the only married one in the bunch, with three children and now living outside the house. Joe, the third child, is the accountant who helps keep everyone on budget. Child No. 4, Maria, is an oncology nurse, driven to help cancer patients after witnessing her mother’s decline. She’s the mother of the house, known to raise her voice amid the cacophony.
Tommy, the fifth child, has followed his father’s footsteps to become a firefighter and lives with an aunt in the city to be closer to his firehouse. The loud child is the sixth, John, who was recently accepted into the fire academy. Patrick serves as the house chef and has begun working as a cook at an Italian restaurant. No. 8, Daniel, is the hyper competitive brother who dominates backyard volleyball and will soon head off to his freshman year of college. The last of the boys is Stephen, the family jokester, starting his junior year of high school. The youngest child is Maggie, a high school sophomore with her dad’s Brooklyn spunk.
Their two-story home is nestled along a shady cul-de-sac in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
On a recent day, Joe, Maria, Tommy and Patrick flip through family photographs at the kitchen table. One shows the 10 of them by themselves at their old Brooklyn home. Another of clean-shaven Dad in his FDNY uniform. Of Dad with a vintage 1970s mustache. Of Mom with a mesmerizing gaze.
Of their young parents on their wedding day.
“If we had all separated, we’d be a mess,” says Maria, now 26.
“Yeah,” Tommy, 24, agrees. “I feel like if we were all to just go our own ways, I don’t know.” He pauses, then cracks a joke: “Who knows what Joey and Maria would be doing? I’d probably still be good.”
Joe, 27, says he’d work around-the-clock at an accounting firm “if I didn’t have my family pulling me home.”
The deaths of his father and mother “affected us all in different ways,” he says. “Having that bond, no matter how different we are and how many different personalities we have, I think it keeps us together.”
Their parents, says 21-year-old Patrick, “instilled in us the importance of being together, eating together, praying together. Those three things in particular.”
And that tradition lives on. Eight of them live in the five-bedroom home. They moved there in 2006 from Brooklyn for better public schools. No one is allowed to sleep in the room that became their mother’s. The master bedroom houses four of the boys, now grown into young men. On Sundays, all 10 gather here for morning prayer.
It’s not all serious. They bicker and fight and argue as siblings tend to do. “Every day when I wake up,” Maria says, “I realize what a miracle it is that we’re all here. Nobody’s thrown anybody out the window yet.”
“It’s definitely a lot of fun,” Joe says. “We don’t have parents, so there’s a lot of: ‘What would you like to do?'”
Their father used to weep at the dining table and thank God for blessing him with so many children. And here they are retelling the tales and wisdom of their father and mother, 15 years after 9/11.
What would Dad think of it all?
“He’d be crying,” says Maria. “For sure.”
The room fills with laughter.
‘What’s the meaning of your life?’
Frank and Jean didn’t share a love-at-first-sight story. He was the best friend of one of her brothers. She was 9 when they met; he was 14. But he always talked with her, asked how she was doing.
A spark grew in her high school years. He had deep inviting brown eyes and the handsome looks of an older gentleman; she had straight auburn hair and a coy, Hollywood-esque gaze.
On her 18th birthday, he came to her and confessed “he had strong feelings for her and that he wanted to date her,” says Shelly Hogan, Jean’s older sister.
“She was so happy. As a young girl, she had a big crush on him.”
He was in seminary, studying to become a priest. Their romance changed those plans. He switched gears and became a New York firefighter in 1979. He and Jean got hitched three years later, in 1982.
“They just really loved one another. It was a beautiful relationship.”
Yet early on, the young couple struggled. He was a devout Catholic, active with the youth. She wanted nothing to do with the church.
He wanted 12 children. She wanted none. She was a special education teacher. She hoped to form a special needs school and be the principal. Those would be her children.
With so much suffering in the world, she wondered, why would anyone want to bring a child into it?
That would soon change. One afternoon in 1985, Frank heard an announcement at church about classes that would explore the topic, “What’s the meaning in your life?” He was so moved by the first session, he came home and begged his wife to attend.
She reluctantly agreed. “This is the last thing I’m ever going to do in the Catholic Church,” she told him.
It turned out to be transformative, as if she’d been touched by God. A couple from Italy expecting their fourth child was there. They were smiling and happy, basking at the power of giving life. “God loves you,” the woman told Jean.
She wondered: Is something wrong with me? Why can’t I love like that?
The priest’s words from that day resonated: “Do you think, perhaps, that God is a monster that you do not allow his will to be done in your life?”
“He opened my life,” Jean said of that moment.
The couple didn’t look back.
“Knowing that God loved her gave her the strength to live her life — to be free, to not be scared of the suffering,” her daughter Maria says.
Jean and Frank built the foundation for their children’s lives. Making money didn’t matter to them — loving life did. What they couldn’t provide financially, they made up for in time spent with their kids.
Frank wrestled with them. He took them to the firehouse. He played football with them across the street in Prospect Park, drawing up plays in the huddle on their bellies. He’d throw passes to Maria. She’d reel the ball in and run for touchdowns. Out of her earshot, he warned his boys: “Don’t you touch her!”
During youth hockey games, Dad watched from the stands as Tommy and his older brother Joe competed on opposite teams. He got worked up when Joe knocked Tommy over.
“Hey, calm down! Calm down!” he shouted.
Frank made dinner, too. Pizza, pasta marinara and barbecue were his specialties.
He worked with the children on homework. He told them to always try their hardest. “If you get a B in class but don’t try, then I’ll be upset.”
Jean was the nurturing type who showered her kids with kindness. She was a mother-of-all-trades: She got her 10 kids to and from school, whisked them off to their games and practices, instilled in them a strong faith.
Frank was so active in the church he took a group of young people every three years on overseas missions. While he enjoyed going into burning buildings to save lives, he said it was more satisfying saving a young person’s soul from eternal flames.
At the Dean Street firehouse, Frank read his Bible and prayer book while others poured their efforts into studying for the lieutenant’s test. “You’re never going to get promoted reading the Bible,” his fellow firefighters said.
His response: “You’re never going to get to heaven reading the lieutenant’s book.”
He was known as a straight shooter. He spoke his mind and wasn’t afraid who he might upset. His word was so highly respected that he could change a union vote just by speaking up.
He could’ve retired with a full pension in 1999. He started a second job as a handyman instead and felt he needed a few more years to build up the business. Jean had finished her master’s degree and hoped to teach again, to bring in extra income.
By September 2001, Frank had his goal in sight. He planned to retire by the start of 2002. Just three months to go.
‘I’ll always help you’
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Jean awoke thinking she was pregnant. Child No. 11 wasn’t in her plans.
“Frank, what are we going to do,” she told her husband. “I’ll go crazy.”
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “But we need to think of a name.”
They scurried around the house, getting the children ready for school. He helped load everyone in the car, and she carted them off.
Before they parted, he said, “I’ll always help you.”
She would never hear her husband’s voice again. Frank left with Ladder 105 shortly after they got the call to head to the World Trade Center. He was somewhere in the south tower when the 110-story building collapsed at 9:59 a.m. Six others from his firehouse also died.
When Jean picked up her children from school, she described what had happened at the twin towers. “There was a terrorist attack. Do you guys know what a terrorist attack is?” she asked.
Maria, then 11, mistook the term terrorist for tourist. “Yeah, it’s the people on 42nd Street with the cameras,” she said.
Jean didn’t watch the news. Her husband had told her to ignore television reports and newspapers when anything bad happened involving firefighters — that it would only cause undue stress.
But by the end of the evening, she sensed the worst. “That night, I understood that something had gone wrong, as he had not called and nobody knew where his team was,” she told the Italian weekly newspaper Tempi.
The next morning, she woke each child and told them: “They didn’t find Dad.” She felt it important to relay the news to each of her children individually, even her 11-month-old.
“That was the hardest: Waking up and crying hysterically with my mom,” says Joe, who was 12 at the time.
Adds Tommy, who was 9, “I didn’t even know what terrorism was. I was in fourth grade.”
The range of emotions varied with each child.
Tommy told one of his friends a couple of weeks later, “I just want to be able to say goodbye.”
Patrick was 6. He hadn’t been able to find his shoes the morning of 9/11 and had argued with his dad. He told his father he hated him and never wanted to see him again.
“Then, I never saw him again,” Patrick says. “That was very difficult to deal with, and still is.”
Maria refused to believe her father was dead for months, even years. She thought maybe a brick hit his head, and he had amnesia. To this day, she has dreams in which he comes back and “we’re all angry at him for being gone so long.”
Amid the family’s devastation was an outpouring of love. People who’d traveled on church youth trips with their father reached out, saying their dad changed their lives. Strangers wrote letters, sent hand-stitched quilts and gave them envelopes with money.
Jim Fassel, then the head coach of the New York Giants, was so moved when he heard a firefighter left behind 10 children that he gave the Palombos free rein. They got VIP treatment when they went to practices and games. They once were honored on the field before the national anthem. When Tommy didn’t put his hand on his heart, Giants star defensive end Michael Strahan smacked him on the head and told him, “Get it together.”
Behind closed doors, there was a huge void. In a family built on faith, the children questioned, “How can God allow this? How can God let us go without a father?”
“A part of me died that day, too,” says Joe.
Tommy says simply, “Growing up, Dad was my best friend. My hero.”
Their mother worked tirelessly. Financially, the family had the support of their father’s firefighter pension, the 9/11 compensation fund and donations of strangers. It allowed Jean to focus on her most precious asset — her children.
She made sure whatever doubts her children might have about God’s love were tended to. She even forgave the terrorists.
“God’s love has exceeded this evil,” she said.
Friends from church pitched in. So did firefighters from their father’s station. They fixed dinner, changed light bulbs, gave the boys rides on the trucks and played football with them at Prospect Park.
They even joined the Palombos on vacations in the decade that followed.
At the Dean Street firehouse, a memorial with oak paneling now lines a back wall. It showcases framed images of the men lost that day. Seven jackets hang on an adjacent wall, including one bearing the name Palombo on the back.
One firehouse slogan reads, “But my sons have sons who are as brave as their fathers.”
In the firehouse: a 9/11 ‘legacy’
Tommy Palombo stands at attention on a stage lined with American flags. It’s a moment 15 years in the making.
“Legacies,” they’re called. Those sons and daughters who follow the footsteps of fathers and mothers who perished on the job; 343 firefighters died on 9/11 alone.
Tommy was so close to his father he was known as his dad’s “tail,” because the boy was always right behind him. If anyone ever needed Tommy, the family joke was: “Find Frank and you can find Tommy.”
The 9-year-old boy who lost his dad is 24 now, resplendent in his FDNY dress blues on this day in May. The epitome of how far the department has come. A sign of rebirth from the tragedy that struck with devastating force.
Graduating into the ranks of New York firefighters are 310 men and women — known as “probies.” They are called to the stage row by row. The brass recognize each probie for their 18 weeks of hard work that will result in a lifetime of sacrifice.
“Probationary firefighter Thomas Palombo,” says Assistant Chief Michael Gala, the emcee of the ceremony.
Tommy’s right wrist snaps off a salute to FDNY Chief James Leonard, and Tommy steps forward. Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro hands him his diploma.
Tommy’s status as a 9/11 “legacy” isn’t lost on the more than 1,000 people gathered in the auditorium. The crowd erupts with applause.
“That’s awesome,” brother Joe says softly in the crowd.
This moment is the culmination of Tommy’s dream: to honor his father and to give back to the department that helped his family.
“That’s what I want with my life,” Tommy says. “I want to be surrounded by guys who were always there for us.”
He is stationed at the firehouse known as the Harlem Hilton. His first call to a fire came a few weeks later, in the early hours of Memorial Day. Flames shot out of a hardware store in the bottom of a high-rise building in Harlem. People in apartments crowded the windows and had to be plucked to safety by the ladder truck.
Tommy was with Engine 69 and had the lead nozzle position on a hose. His heart raced. In the moment, he didn’t think about his father. He had a job to do. The flames reached more than 25 feet in the air.
But when he got back to the firehouse, he turned more reflective. “How special is this,” he thought.
His fellow firefighters will never replace his siblings, but they are part of his new extended family. The veterans praised the new probie at a recent firehouse lunch over heaping bowls of pasta with baked chicken and sausage. The best probie they’ve had in years. Eager to learn. A guy who understands the culture.
“We don’t see him any different,” says firefighter Mike Davidson. “It’s just, ya know…”
When your father was one of the 343 firefighters lost that day, the “ya know” doesn’t need explanation.
Tommy carries on his father’s legacy in another very real way. On his helmet, he wears badge number 10871 — the same number worn by his dad.
A home brims with life
The footprint waterfalls at the 9/11 Memorial mark the place where the twin towers stood. The steady sound of trickling water provides a soothing, peaceful contrast to the horror of that day.
The site feels almost majestic. The names of the nearly 3,000 men, women and children killed in the terrorist attacks are stencil-cut into bronze parapets surrounding the pools. During the day, you can see through the letters and into the water below. At night, light brightens the names.
The name Frank Anthony Palombo lies on panel S-21, facing the new Freedom Tower that stretches a quarter mile into the sky.
Twelve miles away, Jean Marie Palombo rests in St. Peter Cemetery in Belleville, New Jersey. The gravestone carries the names and images of both husband and wife.
Not far away, the family home brims with life. The backyard hosts intense 5-on-5 volleyball games. The boys lift in the weight room. At dinner, everyone has their duties, from preparing the meal to doing the dishes.
There are signs, of course, of their parents’ absence: old photographs, their mother’s empty bedroom. On the piano sits the music to C.D. Gibson’s “A Widow and Her Friends.”
Daughter Maria finds comfort knowing that the young woman who feared having children suffer in this world gave them an enduring love — and the knowledge that their suffering has made them stronger.
“That’s something our parents passed down to us,” she says. “When there’s suffering, there’s joy at the end of it.”
Together, they overcame.