Contributed by: tomw
DARBY TOWNSHIP -- A U.S. Army soldier with ties to Delaware County was killed Saturday in Iraq, hours after phoning home to wish his wife a happy birthday.
Spc. Nicholas J. Zangara, 21, of the West Torresdale section of Philadelphia, died after an improvised explosive device detonated near the fuel truck he was driving in the town of Beiji, about 90 miles south of the northern city of Mosul.
Zangara was traveling with the 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, from a base in Schweinfurt, Germany, when he was killed.
Using a pre-paid phone card purchased by his father, Richard Zangara, of the 1000 block of Poplar Avenue in the Briarcliffe section of Darby Township, Nicholas Zangara called his wife, Melanie, in her hometown of York at midnight to wish her a happy 20th birthday.
"He told me that he was sorry for missing each of my last two birthdays and that he would make next year worthwhile," said Melanie Zangara, his wife of 16 months. "He stayed on the phone until 2:30 a.m. He was so full of life. He kept me on my toes every day. It was always something new with that boy. He kept surprising me."
Although his parents divorced when Nick was a young child, they maintained a friendly relationship and reared him while having joint custody.
"He always said, ‘Although my parents are divorced I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I have two great sets of parents,’" said Richard Zangara.
"I never met a more emotional person," said his stepfather, Ed Burgstahler, a retired Philadelphia police officer and detective who served in both the U.S. Navy and the Army Reserves for 20 years. "When we talked he had no problem telling me he loved me and I’m glad I told him the same, because I did love him."
Melanie Zangara said that as much as Nicholas loved his family -- he had the names of his three nieces tattooed on his arm inside of a heart -- he particularly idolized his father.
"His dad was his hero, and everyone should know that," she said.
Richard and his wife Bridget, Nicholas’ stepmother, were in their home when a call came from Nicholas’ mother, Barbara Burgstahler, that two Army officers were in her home.
"When I heard his mother crying in the background, my spine started to tingle. All I could say to the officer was, ‘Don’t tell me he’s dead. Tell me he’s wounded or something, but please, not that he’s dead.’
"They said they were sorry and I just went numb. I still am."
"It’s another tragedy and a terrible situation," said U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-7, of Thornbury. "Because of these (improvised explosive devices), he had no chance and was tragically killed. It’s all the more reason we have to work to bring stability to the current Iraqi government and find a way to deal with these devices. The technology we have is being deployed but there are too many situations where either it’s not working or the units do not have it."
Nicholas Zangara enlisted in the Army in 2000 and served three years, mostly in Germany and Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia.
"The ironic thing is his enlistment was finished and he didn’t have to re-enlist," said Ed Burgstahler "That’s what’s killing us. We could have provided for him, but he was newly married and he wanted to be responsible and obtain a skill and an education. He was an individual and he wanted to do it on his own."
Nicholas Zangara was sent to Kuwait in February and into Iraq in March. He was on a 13-month tour due to end in April 2005, but there was speculation that he could return before Christmas.
Either way, Nicholas Zangara was due to come home to the Philadelphia area in two weeks as part of his military leave.
"He wasn’t worried about anything over there," said Richard Zangara. "All he cared about was making sure we weren’t worrying about him here at home. The last time I talked to him was on Friday and he said to ‘quit worrying because I’m going to get out of this hell-hole and be home in two weeks.’"
Richard said he urged his son to continue his military service after his initial service period had ended.
"After he was sent to Iraq he said to me, ‘Dad, I never used to listen to you, and when I finally did, I ended up in Iraq. I should have tried to keep my streak alive.’"
Bridget Zangara described Nick as a "fun-loving guy who always made you laugh and was well liked by everybody."
"He was such a clown that when the Army asked him to fill out paperwork that asked if anything were to happen to him where would he like to be buried, he wrote, ‘With Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial.’"
Ed Burgstahler said there’s not a dry eye in Nicholas Zangara’s Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood.
"Everybody has a Nick story," he said. "He was so well loved. When you think of Nick you think of him so full of life. You just can’t imagine that he’s gone. You just can’t believe it."
Melanie Zangara said that her husband should be remembered as a hero, but not because he was killed in action.
"Dying in Iraq didn’t make him a hero," she said. "He has always been one because there was nothing he couldn’t do or accomplish."