Battalion Chief John Cagno (Ret.), North Providence Fire Department

At 18 years of age, John Cagno had a bright future. He starred on the football team at North Providence High School, was popular among his peers, served as a volunteer for the North Providence Fire Department and aspired to be a successful college student.

Things, however, don’t always turn out as planned. On one very normal afternoon, Cagno was running a routine drill at a mill in North Providence with the other volunteer firefighters when the situation went horribly wrong.

Cagno climbed the aerial ladder, “40, maybe 50 feet up,” when he unknowingly entered a “field of induction.” At that point, Cagno’s body took 14,000 volts of electricity from a 35,000-volt transmission line, severely burning both of his hands and his right leg. The intense impact from the electricity jolted his body off the ladder, and he was caught hanging upside down until he could be rescued.

Other volunteer firefighters assessed the scene, made sure it was safe to attempt a rescue, and eventually lowered Cagno to the ground, where he was transported to the hospital. He suffered sixth-degree burns on both of his hands and to his right leg.
Many doctors doubted his recovery, but 41 surgeries and many years later, Cagno proved them all wrong.

“I was pretty much burned right down to the bone on my left hand. Doctors told me I might lose my arm and that even if they could save it, they didn’t know what type of use it would have,” Cagno said. “I do have tremendous nerve damage to both of my hands and still suffer pain every day, but I wasn’t going to let this be me.

“When you are faced with adversity, you don’t have a lot of choices. You can either embrace it and try to overcome it, or let it overtake you, and my choice was to overcome it,” he continued. “I knew I had a very uncertain future, I knew I may not be the fireman that I thought I was going to be. It was not easy. There were days that the pain was so bad, I prayed that God would just take me, but no matter what the end result was I was not going to let this be the end of me.”

Despite his long road to recovery and the many setbacks that Cagno endured along the way, his perseverance eventually prevailed, and he earned his way back onto the fire department, where he served the North Providence community for 30 years.

He worked as a Rhode Island state fire instructor and served on both the federal and state Urban Search and Rescue Teams. He made countless other accomplishments throughout his career as well, many of which he was told by medical professionals that he would likely never be able to achieve.

“I never looked at this as a handicap, more of an inconvenience that I just had to work through,” Cagno said. “It wasn’t the physical part that was the hardest; it was more of a mental thing at times. Things like opening a Ziploc bag or buttoning my top button, that would really aggravate me because I don’t have the dexterity to do it, but you just figure it out.”

After retiring from the North Providence Fire Department in 2011, Cagno decided that it was time for a new chapter in his life. He said he never wanted to forget or even leave behind his past, but he was interested in trying out something completely different.

He made contact with a former high school student from North Providence High School who was also a common friend from the fire department and just happened to be a writer. After many conversations about the possibility, the two began writing Boy in the Box.

“You know, I got to talking with John and I said, ‘You really have a story here.’ He is an inspiration,” said Paul Lonardo, who co-authored the book with Cagno. “He has a lot to talk about, so once we started talking, the book, which is all about overcoming adversity, really began to take shape.”

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Copyright © 2019 Lt. Joseph P. DiBernardo Memorial Foundation
The Lieutenant Joseph P. DiBernardo Memorial Foundation, Inc. (Foundation) exists to assist fire departments with their ability to purchase and train with rescue equipment. Toward that end, the Foundation does so without regard to race, religion, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation or age. The Foundation’s By-Laws, Annual Report, and Conflict of Interest Policy are available by writing to the Foundation at its home address.