Twenty years ago, during one of the deadliest days in American history, Charlene DeMarino was — like many other Americans — working at her office when she learned of what happened that morning. A co-worker told her to come watch the TV after a jet crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. She and her co-workers watched in disbelief and dismay as a second plane slammed into the south tower 17 minutes later.
By then, Charlene had a clear view of the dark plume of smoke blanketing the Manhattan sky from her office in Franklin Square.
“All the roads were closed,” recalled Charlene. Businesses and transit ground to a halt, and “for hours and hours, all I could do was watch” the streams of fire trucks and police cars racing on Hempstead Turnpike. As she paced back and forth in her office, Charlene’s thoughts centered on one man: her husband, Vincent DeMarino, an NYPD officer and North Valley Stream resident, who was on duty that day working in Bronx narcotics and was numbered among the first officers to plunge into the chaos and terror of the WTC site.
By 4 o’ clock, Charlene was, at last, able to get out of the office to pick up her four children from their grammar school at Blessed Sacrament and take them home. The children gathered around the TV, waiting feverishly for their father to come home. When pressed by her children again and again about when their dad would be back, all Charlene could say in her carefully composed tone was, “Everything is going to be ‘OK.’”
“He was literally missing for at least 17 to 18 hours. We didn’t hear from him at all,” Charlene said.
At about 3 in the morning, while the children were asleep in their beds, Vincent returned home, his uniform marred in dust and grime from the hours spent under the dense cloud of smoke that lay claim to Lower Manhattan.
“I took the hose out from the backyard to hose him down,” Charlene said. Then, Vincent went inside for a quick hot shower, a change of clothes, and like that, he was off again to the WTC site, leaving almost as soon as he had arrived. Over the course of several weeks, totaling over 500 to 700 hours, Vincent worked in the WTC debris field to aid in the search-and-rescue efforts.
As Vincent and his fellow officers toiled amid the ruins, they were exposed to the toxic chemical pollutants from the rubble and debris. “He didn’t realize it at that time,” said Charlene, but the cabin of Vincent’s police car was taking in contaminated air, and he was “inhaling all of it.”
It was not long before Vincent’s health suffered as he developed skin irritations that, despite ongoing treatment, never went away, sinus infections, acid reflux and unsteady breathing. “He never slept,” Charlene said. “He was up every two hours from that night forward.”
Despite his health problems, Vincent pressed on with his career in public safety, serving as the New York City Transit security chief dealing with emergency response and counterterrorism measures, as well as guarding the city’s transit facilities. And Vincent pressed on with his two most prized and precious roles of husband and father—never missing a game or a recital if he could help it, and spending quality time with the children and his wife whenever possible.
According to Charlene, nothing seemed to snuff Vincent’s joy or dampen his relentless vigor and “full-speed” energy toward life and family. While Vincent always took pride in the seriousness of his work, he also had a way of “making things light” — and was always quick with a funny on-the-job story to tell her and the children. Yet Vincent rarely spoke to his family or anyone else about what he and his fellow officers witnessed and endured on Sept. 11.
Just when the crushing consequences of 9/11 seemed to have fully exacted their toll, Vincent suffered his first of two seizures on Nov. 8, 2018. About a month after his second seizure on Thanksgiving night of that year, doctors discovered a tumor in Vincent’s brain, which was believed to have been linked to his work at the contaminated ground zero site.
As the cancer progressed, “that jocular, amped-up man was gone in a couple months,” said Michael DeMarino, Vincent’s youngest son. “He went from being someone who was so independent, up at 5 a.m. in the morning running the treadmill, to being the total opposite.”
Vincent DeMarino died Dec. 6, 2019. All four of his children, Michael, Nicole, Morgan, and Vincent, have followed in their father’s line of work as police officers and “proudly carry the DeMarino name” today.
“The greatest thing my dad believed he ever did as a police officer in the field was as a 9/11 responder,” Michael DeMarino said, “…but his proudest and most important full-time job and title he ever wanted to excel in was being a dad, and he did.”