For more than three decades, Deirdre Taylor knew the firefighter who saved her life through only the grainy black-and-white photos on the front page of the New York Daily News, on Dec. 30, 1983.
Taylor, now a registered nurse in Alexandria, Va., kept the Daily News article tucked away in a keepsake binder for years. She wished as she got older that she could find Pugliese and thank him — a desire that intensified after she became an emergency room nurse, as she learned how rare it was to hear back from patients she encountered on the worst days of their lives.
But she hadn’t lived in New York since the fire, and didn’t know where to start. After 9/11, she feared the worst, that Pugliese could have been among the hundreds of firefighters who died in the World Trade Center attacks. She periodically searched his name on Google, finding nothing.
But finally, in March, Taylor thought she may have one last chance to find him.
With her family’s support, she decided to move from Virginia to New York for eight weeks to work in an overwhelmed Manhattan emergency room — trying to help save the lives of coronavirus patients, while searching for the man who saved hers.
“When I was packing my bags, I packed the Daily News article with me,” Taylor, 40, told The Washington Post, “and I told myself that one of the things I’m going to accomplish while I’m here is track him down, or track a family member down, and just say thank you.
“Had he not been there,” she said, “I would not be alive today.”
Pugliese, 75, had never had someone track him down to say thank you before, he told The Post on Wednesday.
The former Marine became a New York City police officer for several years before switching to become a firefighter, working the SoHo neighborhood until he retired in 1996.
For decades, the Daily News front-page article hung in his office, surrounded by all his fire department and Yankees memorabilia.
How could he forget Deirdre? “I’ve had her picture on my wall for 24 years,” he said.
Saving her life was the highlight of his career, he said. He remembers the day clearly. He and his fire company were fixing a broken pipe in SoHo on a frigid December afternoon, when a man came running up Wooster Street, right up to Pugliese, yelling that there was a fire.
Pugliese followed him, taking off at a sprint. The man guided him to the sixth-floor apartment where thick smoke was billowing out, and Pugliese went in. He called out for anyone inside, before finding an artist’s studio engulfed in flames.
Taylor’s mother was crying, “My baby! My baby!” Pugliese remembered. He quickly helped her out of the room before returning on his hands and knees, crawling through the burning studio and blinding smoke for about six feet, when he felt the child.
She was unconscious. He carried her to the living room, where he gave her mouth-to-mouth to bring her back. He rushed down the six flights of stairs to get her to an ambulance, when to Pugliese’s relief, she woke up and started to cry.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” Pugliese said, “and thank God we were there.”
Pugliese, who now lives in Spring Lake, N.J., later received a medal of valor for Taylor’s rescue, in a ceremony that is among his most prized memories. He said he dreamed about it as recently as two weeks ago — just as Taylor was trying to track him down.
Taylor’s first two weeks in New York were overwhelming, as she and her colleagues intubated patient after patient struggling to breathe, “something I’ll never forget,” she said. During her time off, she tried on one occasion to go to the firehouse where Pugliese worked, only to find a sign on the door discouraging visitors because of covid-19.
Finally, last week, Taylor caught a break. A group of firefighters came to the ER to deliver the medical staff pizzas for dinner, to show their appreciation. Taylor followed the group to the ambulance bay, explaining that she was trying to find a likely retired fireman from Ladder No. 20, and asking if they had any suggestions on how to start.
One of the firemen gave her a phone number to connect her with the fire chief. She called when her shift ended in the morning, explaining her mission to find Pugliese once more, and bracing herself for bad news.
“Oh, Gene?” the chief told her. “He stops by the firehouse all the time.”
“My heart literally skipped a beat,” Taylor told The Post. “I couldn’t believe it. I really didn’t think he was still going to be around. I really thought I was going to hit a dead end. He said, ‘Yeah, I have his phone number in my cellphone.’ ”
The chief phoned Pugliese right away. Less than an hour later, Taylor’s phone rang.
“It’s Gene Pugliese,” he said. “I’m the firefighter who rescued you that day.”
Finally, Taylor told him what she had been meaning to say.
Taylor said she could only describe the moment as surreal. Pugliese asked if her hair was still blond. It was. He told her the story of the fire, and she told him the story of her life afterward. They learned they had plenty in common. Both were die-hard Yankees fans. Both spent time in the military, Taylor as an Army helicopter pilot in the Connecticut National Guard, Pugliese in Vietnam.
After the call, Pugliese said, “I cried for the rest of the day.”
Pugliese said that learning that the toddler he saved all those years ago is now an emergency room nurse on the front lines of the pandemic has been all the more powerful to him because a former colleague at the firehouse recently died of covid-19. The battalion chief who died, Al Petrocelli, was the one who nominated Pugliese for the medal of valor award, Pugliese said.
Taylor and Pugliese would have liked to meet in person, but Taylor said it’s too risky given that she is in contact with covid-19 patients every day. They hope to find a way to meet in the future.
“It’s a shame there’s no baseball,” he said. “I’d love to go to a Yankees game with her, once this has subsided. I’d love to meet her children. I’d love to meet her in the fire station.”