'Go Ahead. I'll Follow.'
For Franco Lalama, every season had its tradition, and autumn was the season for making wine. As soon as the leaves started to swirl, Mr. Lalama, 45, and his brother Mario headed to the Italian market to buy crates of fresh grapes. Using an old press that belonged to their father, the brothers proudly followed a family recipe handed down from generation to generation.
"Those things were very important to him," said Mr. Lalama's sister Teresa Sweeney, in whose basement the wine press is now lovingly kept. "Frank was a very traditional kind of guy."
Born in Italy, Mr. Lalama, of Nutley, N.J., came to New Jersey in 1963, when he was 7. Tradition held that as the oldest boy in an Italian-American family of seven children, Mr. Lalama was responsible for the others. When he became manager of structural integrity for the Port Authority, taking care of the agency's bridges and tunnels came naturally to him.
"He was very responsible, maybe too much so," said his wife, Linda. "He put himself last and everyone else first." A co- worker told Mrs. Lalama that on the morning of the attacks, Mr. Lalama cleared everyone out of the engineering office on the 64th floor of 1 World Trade Center. Then he turned back to make sure no one was left behind. "Go ahead," he told the others. "I'll follow."
Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on November 4, 2001.
Franco Lalama, 45, a keeper of traditions
Around this time of year, Franco Lalama of Nutley would make his home-made wine, just the way his father used to.
"Two or three years ago, my brother decided to carry on the traditions we had known growing up," remembers his sister, Teresa Sweeney, also of Nutley.
Wine-making was one of those traditions. Mr. Lalama would set up equipment in his sister's backyard and press wine with his brother.
"It became like a family day, the men making wine and me in the kitchen cooking dinner, all of us together," Sweeney said.
A structural engineer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals department, Lalama, 45, was on the 64th floor of Tower One on Sept. 11 when it was hit by a hijacked jetliner. That morning, he spoke to his wife and to his sister Josephine.
He was about to start down the stairs, but then turned back to check on his colleagues. Co-workers who survived saw him last near the 22nd floor.
No one who knew Lalama is surprised that he turned back.
"He had such a sense of responsibility to others," said his wife, Linda. She noted that he "went to every family function, not just for his own children but for his nieces and nephews, too." The couple had three children: Marianne Keane, 17, and Patrician Keane, 15, (Linda's daughters from a previous marriage) and Katherine Lalama, 7.
Mr. Lalama had a degree in engineering from New Jersey Institute of Technology, and through his job was responsible for assuring the structural integrity of the George Washington, Goethals and Bayonne bridges, the Outerbridge Crossing, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and the Port Authority Bus Terminal Building.
"There were nights when we'd be on the George Washington Bridge, and we'd have that bridge taken apart. There would literally be no roadway left. And so long as Franco was there, we knew we'd get it back together," said Jerry DelTufo of Nutley, a friend who also worked in the Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals department, joining the authority in 1988, just a few weeks after Lalama did.
But he said Lalama was as notable for his sociability as for his skill.
"We'd have meetings at work, and he'd serve espresso and cannoli. We used to joke he'd open a restaurant one day, Franco's Cafe."
Lalama was born in Pacentro, Italy. He immigrated to the United States as a child in 1963. He lived in Clifton before moving to Nutley eight years ago.
In addition to his wife and chidren, he is survived by his parents, Attilio and Maria Lalama, of Pacentro, Italy; and six brothers and sisters, Carla Heerschap of Quakertown, Penn.; Anna Ottogalli of Bayville; Teresa Sweeney of Nutley; Angela Celentano of Montecorice, Italy; Josephine of New York City, and Mario.
Memorial visitation will be held Tuesday, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at Biondi Funeral Home in Nutley. A Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Holy Family Church in Nutley. The family asks that no flowers be sent.
Profile by Jenifer Braun published in THE STAR-LEDGER.