“Our whole life was a movie”
Not every casualty of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks occurred on that date.
Nineteen years later, some families are still suffering from its aftereffects.
On June 21, former North Canton resident Sarah DelBianco lost her husband, Blaise DelBianco, a retired New York City firefighter who rushed to the World Trade Center that fateful morning to help his friends and former colleagues.
His cause of death was an aggressive form of prostate cancer.
Though he had retired three months earlier, Blaise DelBianco on the morning of Sept. 11 returned to Engine 220/ Ladder 122 in Brooklyn, logged into the book and worked alongside the crews, digging and sifting through the mountains of rubble.
“He said they wanted to find anyone, even just a sign,“ Sarah said.
But this is about more than a tragedy. It’s a love story, one that would put any Hallmark holiday special to shame.
“There you are“
Brooklyn-born Blaise DelBianco was the first American son of his Italian immigrant family. Rather than bestow the name “Biagio” on the oldest boy as had been the family tradition, his parents opted for a more “Americanized” version, his wife said.
The former Sarah Frient grew up in Greentown. At age 12, Frient and her family moved to North Canton. She attended St. Paul and Central Catholic schools before graduating from Hoover High School in 1994.
A singer, dancer, composer and musician, she was a regular performer with the Canton Players Guild.
“When I was 25, I’d had enough of Ohio and wanted to be in a warm climate to study music better,” she said.
New Orleans was the place.
“I was received very well there. I got to sing a lot down there,” she said. “I performed at the JazzFest festival for two years before I met Blaise.”
In addition to music, Sarah also managed a coffee shop.
Blaise DelBianco arrived in New Orleans in 2003 seeking some emotional respite from the horrifying memories of Sept. 11.
“I had just finished reading a story in the New York Times about (actor) Steve Buscemi advocating to keep firehouses open. I literally finished reading this article and in walks Blaise. I recalled feeling a tingle in my heart. It was going ’There you are,’ and my head was going ’What the hell just happened?’“ she said, laughing. ”I got ahold of myself and put my professional face on.“
She said she knew he was a tourist, adding “You know your regulars.”
As the two engaged in small talk, Sarah learned Blaise had retired from the FDNY in June 2001, and that he knew Buscemi, a former firefighter. The two also worked together in the rescue effort at Ground Zero.
She learned that he lost FDNY hockey teammates and his mentor, Battalion Chief Ray Downey Sr. who had been in charge of the Special Operations Command, as well as friends from Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9 in Midtown, which lost 15 of its members.
A total of 343 New York City firefighters died that day.
Blaise left Sarah his card, which included the word spelled “musik.” A good sign, she thought. He returned the next day, and they talked some more. He offered to send her a firefighter T-shirt.
“I gave him my phone number and address, which I never did to anyone!” she said, laughing. “I just knew. We just clicked.”
Sarah wrote about their meeting in her journal.
When Blaise came by the next morning to say goodbye, Sarah said she wanted to say more, but couldn’t.
"I just met the love of my life and he was gone because I was too scared,“ she said.
But Blaise wrote her a letter. She wrote back.
“The letters turned into phone calls,” she said. “Finally one day, he asked, ’When can I see you next?’ I said ’How about tomorrow?’”
Two days later, Sarah flew to New York.
"He kissed me as soon as I got off the plane, which was our first kiss,“ she recalled. “Our whole life was a movie.”
Sarah stayed for a week, then flew to North Canton to visit her parents before heading back to New York.
Tiring of New Orleans, Sarah told Blaise she was thinking of moving to Austin, Texas, for its thriving music scene and where she has family.
“He said ’Why don’t you move to New York? You can move in with me,’’’ she recalled. "I was hesitant. I told him I come from a very Catholic family. My parents would not be comfortable with that. They would not approve.
"He said 'OK, then, why don’t you marry me?’“
Blaise later formally proposed in a glider airplane.
Asked what her parents thought of the whirlwind romance, Sarah said, “I think there was a lot of skepticism. There was a 22-year age difference. My dad was very unhappy but when they got to know Blaise, they loved him.”
“He was a fabulous man,” Carol Frient said of her son-in-law. “He would go out of his way to try to help and make someone happy, even when he had two dislocated hips and could hardly get around. I couldn’t be prouder of my daughter for the way she took care of him.”
Frient said her late husband, Jack, jokingly referred to Blaise as the younger brother he wished he had. Her husband, she said, called Blaise every Sept 11.
“They called each other ’bro,’” she said, laughing.
The wedding, which the Frients attended, took place on Jan. 25, 2004, at a DelBianco relative’s vineyard estate in Isernia, Italy.
The couple also had a second ceremony conducted by a Native American shaman.
They honeymooned in Rome, where Blaise was interviewed for Italian TV.
"He looked like an Italian movie star,“ Sarah said.
In 2011, Blaise was diagnosed with an unusually aggressive form of prostate cancer. He opted for the da Vinci prostatectomy, a minimally invasive robotic procedure.
But a month later, they learned the cancer had escaped the prostate.
When tumors spread to his spine, Blaise underwent a spinal tumor ablation using radiofrequency, in which heat is used to kill the tumors and bone cement is used to fill the voids.
"The aggressiveness was a clear indication that something was not normal,“ Sarah said. ”He was only in his 50s.“
Dr. Michael Crane, director of the World Trade Center Health Program Clinical Center of Excellence at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, predicts that the number of World Trade Center first responders dying from cancer could soon surpass the actual number of people killed in New York in 2001.
Crane said 9/11 responders have a 30% higher cancer rate than their peers. More than 2,000 had died as of 2018.
Sarah DelBianco said her husband fought to the end.
"He had the fireman’s mentality,“ she said. ”He never gave up. He always believed there was something else out there that would cure him. His body was broken down. He couldn’t eat or swallow. He fought and fought; he fought for me, even until the day he died.“
Sarah worries that people will forget about 9/11, noting that her brother-in-law was a firefighter and her father-in-law was an FDNY engineer.
“9/11 was 19 years ago, but there are a lot of people, such as myself, who are affected to this day,” she said. “There are kids 19 years old now, who never got to see their parent; that’s a lifelong thing.
“I don’t want people to forget the heroes who risked everything to care for their fellow Americans; that’s exactly what they did. Blaise would stop at nothing to help anyone. He was that kind of person. It was always his priority to make sure everything was OK. He could have stayed home, but he dropped everything.”
Sarah said she recently discovered some poems her husband wrote, and a piece detailing his recollection of how they met.
"Blaise would write me letters and notes all the time. He was a pure romantic,“ she said. ”I saved them all. Family members and friends that I’ve been spending a lot of time with since Blaise has passed have encouraged me to write a memoir, and include the letters and cards.“
She said she has plans to do so.
But not right now.
“He was my everything, and I have to figure out who I am as an individual,“ she said. "It’s been him and I for 17 years.”
Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @cgoshayREP