MOUNT ARLINGTON, NJ – Mount Arlington Police Sgt. James Distasio, seriously injured in December when he was hit by a car, came home to the borough today and was given a warm welcome by several hundred school children.
Distasio, who had been undergoing treatment at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in Chester following treatment at Morristown Memorial Hospital, was driven in a Kessler van to his mother’s home. The trip took him past the Mount Arlington School.
“I received a phone call from Lt. Ed Labruno at Mount Arlinton Police,” said Janine Mangino, secretary to school Principal Jeff Grillo. “He mentioned that Sergeant Jimmy was coming home today from Kessler. He just asked if he could give us a 20-minute heads-up as to when he’d be passing by.”
Mangino said her reply was “definitely,” and the school staff and students immediately started making “Welcome Home,” “Good Luck with Your Recovery” and other signs and prepared to head outside. About 250 third-grade to eigth-grade students - joined by teachers and staff - lined Oneida Avenue to await the police convoy, said Mangino.
“We ended up going out at about 11:10 and he drove by at about 11:25,” she said. “There were a lot of Mount Arlington police escorting him as well as police from other places including Roxbury. They were all driving up to his mom’s house.”
Seven members of the Roxbury Police Department were there "to welcome him home," said department spokeswoman Jennifer Dillard.
Mount Arlington Police Chief Keith Licata expressed gratitude for the warm welcome from the students.
"We would like to thank everyone who came out today to make Jimmy’s trip home extra special," he said in an email. "It was truly touching to see all of the supporters and all the kids lined up at the school to cheer on Sergeant DiStasio. The community support has been, and continues to be, amazing!"
Spur-of-the-Moment but Moving Nonetheless
Mangino said the event, despite being last-minute in nature, turned out to be “very touching.” She said she was particularly moved by the sight of the sergeant’s mother in a car that preceded the van carrying her son.
“He waved and his mother was in the police car in front,” Mangino said. “His mother had her window down and she was crying, probably overwhelmed with emotion because we were all out there.”
Chris Merker, a health and physical education teacher at the school, said he was happy the police alerted the school in time. “It was just a really, really good moment to hear Jimmy was coming back,” said Merker, noting he plays softball with the sergeant. “It’s been a long road. We are very excited for him, his family and the community.”
Distasio was working an accident scene on Mount Arlington Boulevard on Dec. 11 when he was struck by a car driven by Chatham lawyer William Anastasio. Details about the officer's injuries were never officially revealed, but it is believed he suffered head trauma when he hit the pavement after being struck by Anastasio, who insists it was an accident and who, earlier this month, said he feels "awful" about the incident.
Distasio, 46, is very popular in the area and there were a number of fundraisers that were organized on his behalf during the past four months.
“He really has a presence in this town, especially with the kids,” Merker said. “He regularly checks in on the school to say hello to the kids and see how the sports teams are doing.”
Mount Arlington Mayor Mike Stanzilis said Distasio is "the true definition" of community policing.
"I think it's great news that Jimmy is home," he said. "Our communityhas gathered around him with a lot of love and a lot of prayers and he is such a great guy. He's added so much to our community over the years."