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Survivor of World War II and 9/11 Ada Ficarra dies at 79

Dawn breaks over the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery on Memorial Day, May 26, 2014, in Boise, Idaho. Local dignitaries held a Memorial Day Ceremony there later that day. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse)

A fiesty woman who witnessed World War II and 9/11 firsthand, Ada Ficarra’s story is one of survival, said her daughter Liz Starr.

Born in the small town of Porto Empedocle, Sicily, Ficarra died April 26 at Sonata West, an assisted living facility in Winter Garden, where she had lived since 2018. She was 79.

Ficarra immigrated to New York City with her mother and two siblings when she was 9, meeting up with her longshore fisherman father who worked in Brooklyn.

Ficarra’s mother sold her jewelry to pay for passage on a boat bound for America, family said. Her family was so poor when they arrived that Ficarra wore her uncle’s old boots to school, Starr said.

Her son, Gene Ficarra, said his mother was the only one of her family to become “very Americanized, very quickly.” She didn’t have an Italian accent when she spoke and she fully embraced American culture.

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When she was 18, her parents arranged a marriage between her and a man in her village named Onofrio Ficarra, who was in the Italian police force and seven years her senior.

They married in Rome in July 1961 and spent a monthlong honeymoon there before returning to Queens. Their first son, Gene, was born 10 months after they married.

The oldest by 11 years, Gene Ficarra would later look after his younger brother and sister while his parents worked.

Onofrio Ficarra worked two to three jobs at a time to support the family, and Ada Ficarra commuted hours a day to her job as a secretary for MetLife Insurance.

“She rode that subway like a beast,” Starr said.

One Thanksgiving when the family’s oven broke, Ada Ficarra transported an entire turkey dinner with sides on the subway home so her family could still celebrate.

“That’s nothing in comparison to what this woman would do,” Gene Ficarra replied, recounting how his mother bought a red 1964 Pontiac Tempest on impulse, even though neither she nor her husband had a drivers license. “In a Sicilian family, the woman just doesn’t do that.”

Though the three Ficarra children grew up “dirt poor,” Starr said, their parents raised them with love.

And she devoured books, Gene Ficarra said.

“I remember, growing up, nights when she would pick up a 400-page book — this is after working all day long — and begin to read it at 7 o’clock, and we’d get up the next morning to get to school and she would not have slept the entire night. She would have finished the book,” he said.

Ficarra dragged her kids to museums, shows and concerts, and she loved theater, especially the opera and Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.

“As much as she pushed us along to do the right thing and to be educated … she was the type of person … that would throw herself on the ground and just roll around and not care about anything,” Gene Ficarra said.

That energy carried her through motherhood and her career for over four decades, until witnessing the September 11, 2001, terror attacks firsthand made her realize she needed to slow down.

Starr said she called her mother after the first World Trade Center tower was hit. Ada Ficarra at the time worked in a nearby building for Guardian Insurance.

“I remember her saying, ‘I don’t understand why all these [expletive] people are crying. I’ve gotta get out of here,’” Starr said. “She just knew that she had to stay focused and get out of danger.”

Reading from a notebook where her grandmother had recounted the experience, her granddaughter Lauren Ficarra said Ada Ficarra felt the building she was working in shake. When she looked outside, everything was black. It reminded her of the bombs from World War II.

Ada Ficarra tried to evacuate the building and saw people ushered back in, so she kept working. After the second tower fell, she tried to leave again.

She walked into the subway station but was stopped by a police officer. She was eventually evacuated to Long Island on a ferry and arrived home about 10 p.m.

“You look at all those pictures of all those people walking through the soot downtown, covered in soot,” Starr said. “She was one of those people. … It was 12 hours of hell.”

The trauma led her to retire two years later. Starr persuaded her parents to move to Florida in 2003, and they settled into a retirement community in Kissimmee.

After Onofrio Ficarra’s death of leukemia in 2018, Ada Ficarra moved to the Sonata West facility.

Gene Ficarra said his mother wasn’t at the facility a month before she she got in trouble for loudly cursing during a meal.

“I think it was another lady who was like, ‘Ada, watch your mouth!’ And she turned around and was like, ‘If you don’t want to hear me [expletive] talking, walk to a new table,” Starr said.

Ficarra stayed active within the community and enjoyed visits from her children and six grandchildren.

Even when the facility closed to visitors, Ficarra’s family found ways to keep seeing her. Ficarra lived on the first floor and had a screened-in porch, so Starr would ask an attendant to sit her mom on the porch, bring her children and set up chairs outside the facility.

Then the facility went into lockdown.

Ficarra had lupus and pulmonary issues, pre-existing conditions that put her at risk. She was also a survivor of eye cancer.

Starr said her mother was tested for the coronavirus two weeks ago with negative results. In email updates, the facility told Starr that a staff member and a person on the independent living side of the facility had the virus. Her mother was tested again April 20.

On April 22, Ficarra was told she had the virus. Starr said she received an email with the news. She’s still not sure how her mother contracted the virus in isolation.

“I dropped her off after a doctor’s appointment on March 10, and they started the isolation slowly after that. But she was in that room for a month,” Starr said. “…The COVID just took her down. … It’s very, very hard to watch her be gone when she was completely ‘with it’ just a couple of days ago.”

Starr said her mother’s belongings are still at the assisted living facility, and they don’t know when they’ll be able to collect them. She hopes they will help her piece together her mother’s last days.

“She lived every moment, she really did,” Starr said. “Even down to the end.”

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© 2020 The Orlando Sentinel

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.