When 9/11 firefighter John Picarello first got the call to speak at Rev. Billy Graham’s final New York crusade in 2005, he thought it was a joke.“I figured it was one of the guys in my company pulling a prank, to be honest,”Picarello, 60, told the Daily News Wednesday. “How would Billy Graham even find me? That was my question.” Assigned to Brooklyn’s 40th Battalion the morning of 9/11, Picarello was in a staging area at the foot of the World Trade Center when the first tower collapsed.He helped rescue some of his Bravest brothers from the rubble, but lost 24 friends in the terrorist attack that claimed more than 2,000 lives, including 343 firefighters.In the aftermath, Picarello rededicated himself to the evangelical church he founded with his wife in Staten Island, called House on the Rock.Firefighter John Picarello, a 19-year veteran from Staten Island’s Battalion 21, speaks before a crowd of nearly 100,000 worshipers on the last day of the Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. (MICHAEL APPLETON/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
“I was shocked and really humbled,” he said of Graham’s invitation. “He specifically asked for first responders. He wanted us up on the platform. It was such an honor.”
Picarello recalled his short meeting with Graham before the elderly evangelist addressed nearly 100,000 worshipers attending the historic three-day crusade at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
“He was very personable, very gentle and absolutely sincere,” Picarello recalled. “He basically said, ‘Just stay humble, no matter your state or position in life.’ That was what he stressed most. The gentleness and humility were real, coming from the heart.”
Picarello said it wasn’t a shock that Graham died Wednesday at the age of 99, but that it’s still hard to accept.
“It’s a sad day. The finality of his passing is really the silencing of one of the most influential voices of the 20th century,” he said. “He always stayed true to preaching the gospel in simple terms. He was straightforward. No fluff.”
Picarello praised Graham’s commitment to preaching in New York after 9/11, especially since the snowy-haired sermonizer was already suffering from prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and excess fluid in his brain – and needed a walker to get around.
“By 2005, the city was getting back on its feet, but it was still healing from 9/11,” Picarello said.