Nick Catanzaro was too young to remember that awful night in December 1983 when the Buffalo fire commissioner came to his home to tell loved ones that their father and husband, Firefighter Michael Catanzaro, had died in a huge propane explosion.
Nick was only 9 months old.
But he and his brothers still talk about the days when their father returned home from the firehouse, in his work boots, to take them for a walk down the street.
Nick Catanzaro, the youngest of four Catanzaro boys, took a huge step towards filling those boots Saturday, when he and 42 others were sworn in as Buffalo Fire Department recruits.
"It's funny, because everyone says I look the most like my father and act the most like my father," Catanzaro said in an interview before the ceremony. "So I figured I should fulfill his legacy and be a firefighter myself.
"I'd love nothing more than to make my father proud," he added.
Catanzaro and the 42 other young men still have a rigorous 12-week training program to endure, starting Monday, before they can join a department that would then grow to 719 members.
So Catanzaro, 29, is going to wait before celebrating -- and looking up to the heavens to thank his father.
The youngest Catanzaro son, who grew up wanting to be either a Buffalo firefighter or a pro hockey player, has no idealized view of how his father would have reacted to his becoming a recruit, after about five years on the Fire Department list.
"I think he would be really hard on me, telling me it's not going to be a cakewalk, that I have to work my butt off," he said. "I think he would be very proud, deep down inside, but he wouldn't show it to me, not yet."
Jean Catanzaro Hubbard, the new recruit's mother, said it was probably the most proud day of her life, that one of her sons followed in his father's footsteps.
"He always said he had an angel on his shoulder," she said of her youngest son. "It's just so sad that he never knew what a great guy his father was."
Nick and his three brothers, Michael, Chris and Marc, remain close. About five years ago, Marc Catanzaro gave his brothers a present, audio tapes of their father recorded when he was in Vietnam.
"It was breathtaking," Nick Catanzaro said. "It was the first time I ever heard his voice."
Mayor Byron W. Brown told the overflow crowd of about 300 people, inside the Buffalo Fire Auditorium at Elmwood Avenue and Virginia Street, about the North Division Street propane explosion that killed Michael Catanzaro, four other city firefighters and two civilians on Dec. 27, 1983.
"For the [Catanzaro] family, it's a bittersweet day, but a very happy day to see one of the sons of that tragedy join the Buffalo Fire Department," the mayor later told reporters.
Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. joined the department less than a year after the fatal explosion.
"To have Nick with us, we're very thankful for that, and we'll never forget his father's sacrifice," he said. "He's going into this with his eyes open, more than anyone else here."
Whitfield, Brown and others talked about the brotherhood, the extended family, the shared pain and joy of every sacrifice and every triumph experienced by the men and women of the Buffalo Fire Department.
Some were in the ranks on that fateful day in December 1983.
"It's full circle for them," Whitfield said of those veteran firefighters. "They have a hole in their heart, where they lost one of their loves ones, one of their peers."
Nick Catanzaro sounded humble and thankful as he stood before reporters and television cameras, talking about the connection he feels with a father he barely knew.
"I'm overwhelmed," he said. "I know my dad's up there watching down on me and taking care of me.
"All I want to do is make him proud."