By Jay Cook |
HOLMDEL – Donald Aquilano said he’s no more than “just your average guy.”
Thirty-three years old, married to wife Jennifer, father of two young daughters Denise and Hailey, he works as the property manager at Holmdel Village, a senior living facility a short distance from Bayshore Community Hospital. He says he has all he really needs.
Yet Aquilano’s life over the past year and a half has been far from ordinary. After hovering for years at over 360 pounds, he dropped 160 pounds after gastric sleeve surgery a year and a half ago, providing him, he said, with a “new lease on life.”
And with it Aquilano grasped an opportunity to further his deep-rooted patriotic benevolence, a sentiment he’s carried over his 33 years.
Aquilano decided it was time to make a difference, in any way he could, so with three months of basic planning, he took to the street to honor the fallen from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Fitted with an American flag baseball cap, white T-shirt, an American flag jacket, along with a slick pair of bright red slacks, Aquilano departed from the Holmdel 9/11 Memorial at town hall on Sunday afternoon for a 45-mile walk to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan. He carried a 9/11 commemorative American flag the entire way.
“I never did the civil service job or the hero job – cop, fireman, military,” Aquilano said on Tuesday afternoon, still recovering from the march. “I’m just a patriot, a proud American, and I want to do what I can to help others.”
His father, Pat Cornell, a retired Jersey City fire fighter, was his source of inspiration. Aquilano said his father spent nearly an entire month “on the pile,” working to clean up rubble in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Cornell followed behind Aquilano to provide support for the walk, trailing on his Harley Davidson trike motorcycle.
The nearly 12-hour trek tested Aquilano in ways he had never experienced before, but it also came with support from those he was honoring.
When leaving Holmdel at around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, he was escorted by Holmdel Police down to the Bethany Road/Route 35 intersection. He made it to Black Betty Saloon in South Amboy, his first stop, where he was met by supporters who saw him walking.
Cornell’s motorcycle had some mechanical issues when departing the restaurant, leaving Aquilano to fend for himself as he reached more trafficked roads. He made it over the Ellis S. Vieser Memorial Bridge, which runs across the Raritan River as Route 9.
At about 8:30 p.m., he met his cousin’s family at the Woodbridge Mall, who were waiting for him with some refreshments. They chatted for a few minutes and the pit stop gave Aquilano a chance to “take a break, pop some blisters, put some powder on, and grab a cold drink.”
After his father rejoined him, Aquilano said they continued up Routes 1 and 9, through Avenel, Rahway, Linden, and past Newark Liberty International Airport. Well into the wee hours of the morning, Aquilano had reached Jersey City, where first responders greeted him with an outpouring of support. Tommy Broderick, a Jersey City police officer, coordinated a police escort through the Holland Tunnel.
“There’s a police officer in the front, another in the back, and I’m on the back of a Harley going through the Holland Tunnel,” Aquilano recalled. “Pretty cool.”
The father-son marchers arrived in Lower Manhattan at around 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, about 14 blocks away from the Freedom Tower.
At that time, the New York Police Department was beginning to shut down much of the traffic coming near the World Trade Center, in preparation for the 15th memorial service.
And while neither Aquilano nor his father were permitted into the ceremony – neither lost a loved one in the attacks – it was still a sobering moment for them to share. On one end of the spectrum, Cornell had the experience as a first responder after the attacks. But Aquilano also played a part in the rebuilding of One World Trade.
Prior to working at Holmdel Village, Aquilano was a member of Ironworkers Local 40 in New York City, tasked with rebuilding Lower Manhattan. While his primary job was at the Goldman Sachs building, he spent about two weeks working on the Freedom Tower.
It provided a surreal moment for the two men, a first they had never shared before.
“Every day I would go to work and get to watch the Freedom Tower being built,” Aquilano said. “So my father was there when it was down, and I was there to put it back up.”
After realizing they wouldn’t make it into the ceremony, Aquilano and Cornell decided to turn back around and head home. They made it just in time for Aquilano to send his girls off to school that morning.
In total, Aquilano said he raised between $500 and $1,000 for the whole event, with every dollar pledged to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.
Despite the golf ball-sized bruises on his ankles and the blisters on his feet, Aquilano plans to continue the tradition next year, with some changes along the way. He said he certainly wants to walk again, hopefully a handful of other people, in an effort to raise more awareness. Aquilano also said finding a business to sponsor the walk would go a long way in fundraising more money.
And while the hike certainly presented its own challenges, a feeling of internal motivation pushed him to the finished line.
“You have guys working 12 hour shifts getting shot at, or someone who’s on a trek in Iraq for three days,” a stern Aquilano said. “I can walk 45 miles with unlimited supplies. If they can do that, I can walk the miles.”
This article was first published in the Sept. 14-21, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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