When Dominic Caruso went through the wreckage of his Elizabeth home after an American Airlines plane crashed into it on Jan. 22, 1952, all he recovered was a handful of pictures and a love letter in a handbag.
His wife, Rosa, was home when the plane crashed. Despite heroic efforts by two policemen, Rosa, who was pinned under the rubble, died 11 days later at St. Elizabeth's Hospital. She had suffered a broken back, pelvis and burns over 80% of her body.
Every day, after the hospital made him leave her side, Dominic scoured the rubble for anything that belonged to the life they had shared for more than three decades.
He found Rosa's handbag and the love letter that he had written her in 1919 before they married.
Seventy years later, granddaughter Maria Caruso Martin said the pain of Rosa's loss has never vanished. Many girl babies are named after Rosa and numerous puppies have been dubbed Rosie.
"We are a family full of Roses," she said.
But it is the love letter in the handbag that is the family's most treasured icon.
Thousands of love letters
The love letter, written by Dominic to Rosa before they married in the summer of 1920, was one of more than a thousand he wrote to her. It is the only one that survived. In the possession of Martin, it is treasured by the family, a testament to the reality of true love.
"In the letter, he begs her to wait for him," Martin said. "He goes on and on for two pages telling her how beautiful she is and about the life they are going to have together."
Dominic met Rosa Andreola in 1916, when he was 16 and she was 15, in their native Calabria, Italy. Too young to marry, the couple were devoted to each other, waiting for the years and birthdays to pass.
Dominic sent letters to Rosa, who at first could not read because education for girls was not a priority in rural Italy. But Dominic believed she should know how to read, if only to read his letters.
His first letters were simple, with pictures describing his words. Over time, he patiently taught Rosa to read using his letters as a primer.
"They continued to ask for permission to get married, but were told no," Martin said. "They were too young."
At age 18, every male was required to serve in the military for two years and Dominic was drafted into the Italian Army. Every day Dominic sent letters to Rosa, begging her to wait for him and they could marry.
"She had no intention of meeting or marrying anyone else," Martin said. "But he pleaded with her to wait for him. She waited for him; her heart was with him. He returned in 1920 and they married immediately that summer. They had their first child in 1921."
Life in Calabria was not easy. After years of planning, Dominic and his father Antonio Caruso sailed to America in 1922 to find a better life. Rosa stayed in Italy.
The two first got jobs laying tile in the Holland Tunnel and they worked in the Singer Sewing Machine factory. They set up life in the Peterstown section of Elizabeth, readying homes for those left behind in Italy. Every Friday, Dominic sent money and a love letter to Rosa.
Over the years, the father and son would return to Italy. But Rosa was not ready to go to America – she was fearful of making the change and did not want to move while pregnant.
But on Dominic's every visit home, Rosa would become pregnant. Augustine, their youngest, was born in 1938.
"She remained at home in Italy waiting for 'the right moment' to feel safe enough to take the kids and go, and my grandfather would be working in America," Martin said.
Then World War II intervened, and visits home to Italy were no longer possible. Dominic could not call or write as he had. The only way to get anything to Rosa was through the Red Cross.
"She had to survive the war as a single mom," Martin said. "There she was in southern Italy, running from the bombs and hiding in caves with the five kids. But he never stopped writing her letters, whatever it took."
Once the war was over, Dominic returned to Italy, intent on bringing his bride and family back to America.
"That separation of him being in America and her in Italy went on for about 10 or 12 years," Martin said. "But, after the war, they were never doing that again."
Though Rosa was still afraid, the family came to America in 1948. It took a while to obtain visas and paperwork for the entire family, which now included married children and their families. By that time, Dominic was a U.S. citizen.
"They lived the American Dream for three years in Elizabeth," Martin said. "Rosa was very happy in America."
And then tragedy fell out of the sky.
Jan. 22, 1952
Rosa was 52 when she died. She left behind a brokenhearted husband, five children including then-13-year-old Augustine, and several grandchildren.
Augustine was the only child still living with his parents. His older brother and his wife had an apartment on the second floor. They were at work when the plane crashed. The third-floor tenants were not so lucky — a mother and two young children died, as did two others, including a child from the neighborhood.
Augustine had been sent to a store to buy bread when he heard the crash. He hurried home on his bike and when he turned the corner onto Williamson Street, he saw his house in flames. He knew his mother was inside.
"Everyone at the grocery was saying it was another plane crash," Augustine recalled. "I wanted to see the crash, so I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled as fast as I could in the direction of the sirens and fire trucks. As I pedaled up the hill, it became clear the plane had crashed on my house. The immediate feeling of hysteria, terror and then eventually shock overcame me."
Firefighters would not let him near the house. The memories of that day are still fresh in Augustine's mind.
"I recall hysterically screaming for my mother," he said. "I was 13 years old and completely alone at the crash, my whole world was gone. Several minutes later, a cousin of my father’s, Johnny Occhuzzi, came and took me by the hand, and we walked to his home, where his wife Hilda was waiting by the door with the look of terror on her face. I was in complete shock for several hours. The Occhuzzi family located my father and siblings and we all gathered at their home while we waited to hear the fate of my mother."
"It was traumatizing. The wound is still as raw as it was 70 years ago," said Martin, who has two older sisters and a younger brother. "Had he not been out getting fresh bread, he would have been inside."
Rosa was the last to die from the Jan. 22 plane crash. All 23 occupants on board the Convair 240 – 20 passengers and three crew members – plus seven people on the ground were killed in the crash and fire.
It was the third plane crash in three months in Elizabeth.
A month before on Dec. 16, 1951, a Miami Airlines C-46 crashed into the Elizabeth River shortly after takeoff from Newark Airport, with 56 people on board. None survived.
On Feb. 11, 1952, National Airlines Flight 101 crashed on Salem Avenue, killing 29 of 63 people on board. It could have been worse; the plane narrowly missed an orphanage.
'America broke his heart'
A lawsuit was filed against American Airlines on behalf of the families who lost loved ones, homes and belongings in the crash.
During the trial, the physician hired by American Airlines, a doctor who never treated Rosa, testified Rosa did not suffer, despite the fact she lingered for 11 days in a medically induced coma before she died.
"They valued her life at $0," Martin said. "They said she didn't provide any value to the family. Can you imagine? In the legal document, a ledger of sorts, it says $0 next to her name. A mother, grandmother, wife, a human being. They gave a bit of money for clothes, shoes, belongings, the house. But, for my grandmother — nothing."
That further broke Dominic, who left America for life back in Italy once Augustine finished school and married.
Dominic remarried and had another child. He returned to America only once, when Augustine had his fourth child — and first son.
"He never came again," Martin said. "He died in Italy at age 81 in the same house that he lived in with Rosa. The stone house with the dirt floor. He used to say, 'America broke my heart.’”
A legacy of love
The family will never forget the love shared by Dominic and Rosa. Wedding dresses in the family are embroidered with roses and brides share love letters as vows in their wedding ceremonies.
In 2019, Martin wanted to carry a love letter from her fiancé Thomas Martin in a handbag down the aisle on her wedding day, as a homage to her grandparents.
But she could not find a handbag appropriate for a memory that was so special, Martin said.
That prompted Martin to create The Mrs. Clutch, a specialty handbag company dedicated to honor the grandmother she never met and a tribute to her grandparents' devotion. As a nod to their family's heritage, the bags are handmade in Florence, Italy.
Martin carried the prototype purse on her wedding day, with her fiancé's love letter safely tucked inside.
Martin wants future brides and women to understand what her handbags honor — the woman who lived and loved.
"My grandmother carried this letter in her handbag every day of her life," Martin said. "And they discounted her. She was publicly discarded by the court as having no value. There was no closure for the family. This is why I started the brand, to honor her, to illuminate her life."
On Jan. 22, The Mrs. Clutch kicked off a more than month-long raffle – The Enduring Love Giveaway. To mark the 70th anniversary of the plane crash, the company is offering 70 bridal clutches to first responder brides getting married.
"As the 70th anniversary of these tragic events approached, and I look back with my grandmother in mind, I think of the brave first responders who pulled my grandmother from her burning home that day," Martin said. "At the same time, I cannot help but think of today's first responders, those that have been fighting another repeating tragedy: COVID-19."
The Enduring Love Giveaway is a thank you for their service, Martin said. Any first responder bride or bride who has a first responder fiancé actively working and are currently engaged and planning a 2022 wedding qualifies to participate. Winners will be drawn at random on March 1.
Also, for each bag given away, The Mrs. Clutch will donate $10 to VOW for Girls, an ongoing effort of the company.
Entry forms will be live on the home page of The Mrs. Clutch website through Feb. 28.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Century-old love letter survives NJ plane crash, shapes family