50 for 50: Station 15 - The Biggest Funeral and the Smallest Funeral
Firefighters who give their lives in the line of duty to their community are afforded funerals with full honors. A full-honors funeral would be among the most special and reverent services most people see in their lifetime, but in the case of Driver Engineer Giovanni Ciancio, who died in 2021, full honors is only half the story.
Giovanni served Hillsborough County Fire Rescue for almost 20 years. He immigrated to the United States in his 20s and chose to serve his community through fire service. When he died, Fire Rescue was presented a challenge regarding his full-honors funeral: His widow, Francesca, spoke only Italian at the time.
Help from the community
Hillsborough County reached out to an important community partner, Ybor City’s Italian Club, for help. This is how Hillsborough County Fire Rescue was introduced to Italian translator Leona Grebowski, who gave her time and her talent to help Francesca plan the service and to translate and livestream the entire funeral for her and their family back home in Italy.
Leona immigrated to the United States in 2009 and started teaching language classes at The Italian Club in 2019 to help Italians get more comfortable in America and, likewise, to help Americans reconnect with their heritage.
This story is part of Hillsborough County’s 50-for-50 Series, a historic review of some of the memorable events, dates, and people in the history of Hillsborough Fire Rescue, which was born on Aug. 27, 1973. Want to know more? Read additional stories that show the growth, bravery, and specialized operations of Hillsborough County’s largest department.
She gave countless hours to translating the full-honors funeral – not just translating the words but finding the right tone to convey the weight of the service and the sacrifice.
An audience of hundreds and an audience of one
The result was simultaneously the largest funeral that most of the 400-plus people in attendance had ever seen and also the smallest. After each speaker shared their respect and admiration for Giovanni’s service to the larger crowd, Leona then spoke from the stage directly to Francesca in Italian.
Leona remembers the moment as amplifying the most extreme of each of the emotions she experienced that day. She felt severe anxiety to connect the important messages from the fire chief to the grieving widow. She felt sharp grief as she watched Francesca process emotions that Leona could only imagine. And she felt intense spirituality while translating words about a soul moving into heaven during a funeral in a church.
In the years since the funeral, Francesca and Leona have continued their relationship – one with roots all the way back to Italy.
Photo caption: Driver Engineer Giovanni Ciancio was assigned to Station 15 in Palm River and was with HCFR for more than 19 years.