When Salvatore Scilanga returned home from missions at sea as an officer in the Italian Coast Guard, he would usually steer the conversation to his wife’s day, or his daughters’ friends and school work.
He avoided talking about the shipwrecks unless he was asked – and was especially careful on those days when his daughters saw him on the television news at the port carrying children in his arms.
Mr. Scilanga’s vessel was involved in rescuing some of the thousands of people fleeing poverty and war by crossing the Mediterranean to Italy, often on rickety, overcrowded boats.
When he did talk about the job, his eyes shiny with tears, he would tell his family about the mothers who gave birth during the rough crossing, the dead bodies and the parents who had lost their children to the sea.
It was more than just a job.
“He put himself in their shoes and felt deeply for these people,” his daughter Maria, 21, said in a phone interview.
Mr. Scilanga died April 10 at a hospital in Catanzaro, in southern Italy’s Calabria region. The cause was the novel coronavirus, his daughter said. He was 51.
Mr. Scilanga, a well-known and popular figure in Ciro Marina, the Calabrian town where he lived, did not flaunt his position. He made a point of going home and changing out of his uniform before going shopping after work.
“He never wanted people to know what he did,” his niece Francesca De Franco said. “He just wanted to help.”
Mr. Scilanga’s reticence meant that his family only learned from others, and not until after his death, about the time he saved his crew, who were sickened by a particularly violent sea, by bringing the ship back to port on his own. They learned that he often cooked for the whole crew, and that he bought breakfast for the students who took the same bus he rode to work each morning.
Mr. Scilanga was born in Ciro Marina on Feb. 23, 1969. His father, Giuseppe, was a farmer and his mother, Maria, was a homemaker. He was the youngest of 11 siblings, four of whom died in childhood.
He started working as a waiter at age 14 to support himself and his family, then joined the Coast Guard.
Over the years, he devoted himself to his job and advanced to the rank of “primo maresciallo,” equivalent to chief warrant officer 5 in the U.S. Navy. He was notified in February that he would be promoted to lieutenant, and the title became official posthumously.
Along with Maria Scilanga, Mr. Scilanga leaves another daughter, Teresa, and his wife, Adelaide Corigliano.
Teresa, who will graduate from high school this summer, said she is drawn to the idea of helping others. So she plans to join the Coast Guard, like her father did.
“I know he would be proud of me,” she said.