NEW YORK — It all started with a Christmas Day massage at ground zero.
Now, Dawna LoPiccolo, who soothed exhausted firefighter John Mraz amid the debris of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is planning their wedding.
"I met John in a 20-by-12 wood shack at ground zero. He was the last man I massaged that day," said LoPiccolo, a massage therapist who had volunteered to help rescue workers after the attacks.
LoPiccolo, the single mother of a 2-year-old girl, and Mraz, the widowed father of a 7-year-old boy, want to exchange vows under some cross-shaped metal beams pulled from the debris.
After volunteering her massages for months in the devastated city, she asked to go to ground zero again in December.
"I was driven. I said, 'I want to go back to ground zero on Christmas.' Something kept pulling me," she said.
As LoPiccolo walked past the debris on Christmas Day, she recalled, she saw Mraz "sitting there, taking a break from raking through the rubble."
Having lost 25 firefighter friends, he was in a lineup of rescue workers waiting for a massage. "It was cold, and I rubbed his shoulders, his hands. I said, 'Don't worry, sweetie.'"
Then, before returning to work, "he gave me this hug that knocked my socks off!"
He scribbled on her hardhat, "It was worth the wait," and signed it "John, Engine 248."
The 42-year-old firefighter, who lost his wife of 19 years last May, said he "wasn't out looking for anybody." But he couldn't forget the woman who had warmed his aching muscles on that winter day.
Three days later, he phoned another firefighter who knew LoPiccolo. Within 10 minutes, not knowing he was looking for her, she called the same firefighter, "and I said, 'Do you remember that guy John from Christmas?'"
Their first date, just after New Year's, lasted 11 hours.
Said Mraz: "It was like I knew her my whole life, like I knew her from a past life. She is my angel of the ashes."
Last month, she moved into his Brooklyn home. With a September wedding in mind, he decided to give her an engagement ring.
But the 35-year-old woman who grew up on Long Island didn't want a diamond. Instead, her ring is set with a gold-charm Maltese cross--the badge emblem of the New York Fire Department--and Mraz's four-digit badge number.