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Tega Cay father grieves for son who died trying to save others

On a leafy street in the Tree City, golf balls from the nearby course knock sometimes into the little yellow house with the black flag in front. The flag is mounted on a tree where America lives.

The flag waves in front of the home of an immigrant from Argentina who came to New York 30 years ago with his four kids and wife without a place to live or a job - without speaking a word of English - yet through the hardest work found that the American Dream was true.

Hard work in America means anybody can be anything.

In America, anybody can be a hero who dies running into the worst disaster in history, as thousands run away to try to survive.

That flag in Tega Cay has a picture of the World Trade Center towers and the dates 9/11/01 and 9/11/11. The flag says, simply, "We will never forget."

In that little yellow house live 68-year-old Alberto Santoro, the beloved "Paint Man" at the Fort Mill Lowe's Home Improvement Store. He helps so many and never shares his grief - but shares his smiles until his face hurts.

He will never forget. He cannot and will not forget because that flag flies for his son, an emergency medical technician named Mario Santoro.

A decade ago this morning, Mario Santoro had just finished a night shift on an ambulance and come home dog-tired to his little apartment on Gold Street in downtown Manhattan.

His wife and little 2-year-old daughter, Sofia, were fast asleep.

Then, the building shook.

Mario Santoro - who came to America at age 8 and learned English at public school and played basketball and ice hockey and went to Mass, who went to Fiorello LaGuardia High School and John Jay College and got married and started a family and drove an ambulance as he studied to be a paramedic and then, hopefully, a doctor - ran outside.

Mario could see the World Trade Center, hit by the first airplane.

"He felt it, he saw it, and then he ran toward it," said Alberto Santoro, of his son. "He told his wife he must go. She asked why this is so. He said his job was to help people in this world.

"He said he must help."

Mario Santoro looked at his wife, and his sleeping daughter, and he ran toward the World Trade Center, three blocks west. He never saw his wife or daughter or any of his family again.

He was one of the first of the first responders from the New York Fire Department, police agencies and medical services to arrive at the World Trade Center.

Mario Santoro helped the first victim he saw and did not stop - until he was one of them.

Parents' anguish

At that same time, Alberto Santoro was crossing the bridge from Queens toward Long Island City, where he had a small furniture restoration business.

All his 20 years in New York until that day, Alberto had planed furniture, sanded furniture, finished furniture. His hands worked the wood until the dark night.

The furniture business paid the bills as his four kids grew, and allowed Alberto and his wife, Marie, to buy a home where this little family that started out in Rosario, Argentina, thrived.

"I love America," said Alberto Santoro, about that business and his home and his life before that day - which was work and more work by rough and callused hands. "It gave me everything I have."

On the bridge that morning, Alberto looked into the mirror and saw the burning north tower of the World Trade Center after the first plane hit at 8:46 a.m.

He turned around and tried to get his wife by phone. The lines were busy. He drove home and arrived as the second tower, the south tower, was hit.

"Mario!" said Marie. "No one has heard from Mario!"

The oldest son, Alberto Jr., said to his parents, "Mario must have gone there. That is his way."

Marie Santoro turned to her husband and held her hand to her heart. A mother knows.

"Mario is there," she said that day. "I can feel it."

The family did what many people did that day. They watched the news and tried to call people, and finally, they found out that Mario almost surely was in the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Mario had rushed to help injured victims coming out of the tower, as waves of those who would survive ran past him toward safety.

At 10:07 a.m., the south tower collapsed after it was hit by the second plane. Mario Santoro was still there. At 10:28, the north tower fell, disintegrating.

The Santoros watched - and knew. They prayed they were wrong.

Searching

Later that terrible day, and each day afterward for weeks that became months, Alberto Santoro and his wife would head from Queens into Manhattan to 10th Avenue, where the bodies found under the rubble were being identified.

"Did you find the body of the son?" Marie and Alberto would ask, in their accented English.

Even after 20 years in America, these immigrants from Argentina - whose parents were immigrants to that country from Italy, - struggled with the English way of asking for a dead son.

On those nights, Alberto would lie in bed, in Queens, and his wife would bolt upright, saying she heard a key opening the door.

"It is Mario, he has come home, he has a key," she would say.

Alberto would hold his wife and say, "No, my dear. Mario is not home."

On Dec. 27, 2001, workers found Mario Santoro's body above a little girl, his left arm raised over his head.

"They told me the way he was, he was trying to keep that tower from falling on that little girl," said Alberto Santoro. "Even in death, my son was trying to save a life."

Always saving

Mario Santoro had always saved lives and helped others, quietly changing the America he came to as an immigrant child.

As a teenager who, by age 17, spoke English, Spanish and Italian - and the language of the streets of New York - Mario started volunteering at his church. He coached basketball for little kids.

Mario would ask his father, his family and friends for money, which he would spend on food and treats and sneakers for kids who had no food or treats or sneakers.

The Santoros held a funeral for Mario, a service that packed a Catholic church to overflowing with people who spoke many languages in that great place of immigrants, New York City.

On one side of the church, a man came up to Alberto Santoro and introduced himself. The man was in his early 20s, with a wife and son.

"The man tells me my Mario saved him from the streets, that my Mario found him a teacher, you call a tutor in America, to help him with his reading and his maths," Alberto remembered. "He tells me my Mario bought him the only pair of sneaker shoes he ever had when he was a little boy. He tells me he gets a scholarship for school and basketball.

"He tells me that my Mario saved his life. He tells me, 'Everything I have in my life, I owe to your son.'"

After the service, a woman with a small child wept along one wall. She was inconsolable. Alberto approached the woman, another stranger to the Santoro family.

"She tells me my Mario worked for three weeks, overtime shifts, and had all the monies sent to her, because he knew her family from the ambulance job," Alberto remembered. "She tells me he did this because he wanted to help her. He never told anyone he did this.

"He did this because he wanted that woman and her family to have something in America."

Mario was not buried in New York. Mario had always wanted to visit Alcara li Fusi - the village in Sicily where Alberto's late father had emigrated from before settling in Argentina.

Mario's cremated remains were taken to Alcara li Fusi, and spread over a park.

"So that my son could have his dream of going there and being where his people, my family, come from," said Alberto Santoro, the father. "I am very proud of my son."

Move away from grief

Alberto and Marie Santoro moved to the little yellow house in Tega Cay five years ago after their oldest child, a daughter, took a job in Charlotte.

"We wanted to get away from the place where my wife cried every day, the grief," Alberto said. "We had to change. New York was home, but that was where Mario died."

Alberto closed his business and came to South Carolina and took a job at the newly opened Lowe's, where he remains the "Paint Man," adored by co-workers and customers.

The golfers who can't play a lick hit Mario's house with their errant golf balls. Alberto smiles at each. He plays no golf.

He works and he prays and he loves his family - and he grieves.

Every year on 9/11 the past four years - and on Mario's birthday, March 17, St. Patrick's Day - Alberto and his family went to a cemetery in Charlotte, where a brick with Mario's name is etched among the other names of the victims of that terrible attack.

At that Lowe's store in Fort Mill, through a friend who also works at the store, Harvey Mayhill met Alberto Santoro.

Mayhill is also a transplant, from California, and remembering 9/11 and honoring the first responders who died has become part of his life. Mayhill built a three-wheeled motorcycle and trailer just to remember the victims. It is a rolling memorial to the fallen.

Last month, Mayhill took the motorcycle on the tour of York County that carried a 14-foot steel beam from the World Trade Center that was brought to Rock Hill by volunteer firefighters. The beam will be dedicated today as a memorial to those who died on 9/11.

Last month, before that motorcycle ride held to raise awareness and donations for the York County memorial site, Mayhill asked several people to ride with him that day.

"But nobody could make it," Mayhill said.

Mayhill remembered his friend at Lowe's who always talked about Alberto Santoro, whose son died on 9/11 saving people.

"I asked Mr. Santoro if he would ride with me, that I would be honored to help people remember his son," Mayhill said. "I believe it was God that did it, that brought us together for that ride.

"Mr. Santoro deserved that ride."

That August day a month ago, Alberto rode on the back of that motorcycle. When organizers of the ride found out he was there, he was moved to the front, and Alberto was first to pass under a huge American flag.

Alberto Santoro raised his arms as he rode under that flag and he thought of his immigrant son who died an American symbol of courage and bravery.

"My son died a hero - but I wish he was here by my side," Santoro said to himself that day. He says the same thing each day, to co-workers and friends and neighbors.

"I miss my son."

Today at ground zero

Last month, Marie and Alberto Santoro went to New York to visit the 9/11 Museum, where Mario is honored among so many heroic men and women. Marie then flew to Argentina to visit relatives and see the plaque in a hospital that honors Mario Santoro, proud Argentinian-born hero of the 9/11 attacks in America.

On Wednesday, Alberto finished his shift at Lowe's and left for New York. After a Lions Club dinner in Mario's honor on Long Island, Alberto picked up his wife at the airport as she came back from Argentina.

Daniel, the youngest son, who is still in the Army and has fought in wars because of the same 9/11 that killed his brother, is hoping to arrive today. So will Alberto Jr., an engineer in Missouri, and daughter Maria.

The family of immigrants - who have succeeded so greatly and given so much to their country - will go down to ground zero, where the towers once stood.

Alberto will take out a picture of Mario from the many he carries.

He will tell people today how he loves America and what he, an immigrant, always tells people who complain - especially other immigrants:

"If you don't like this country, go back to where you came from!"

The rest of us in America - whether we were born here or not - will hope that somewhere in our guts, our bones, there are heroics even close to the courage of Marie and Alberto Santoro.

At ground zero, the name Mario Santoro will be read. A 28-year-old man, an immigrant from Argentina, who died trying to save a little girl from a 110-story tower falling on them both.

A man of such valor who died with his arm outstretched above his head, to shield the falling heavens and try to protect somebody else who dreamed of greatness in America.

Andrew Dys 803-329-4065 adys@heraldonline.com

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