A Hero, A Tragedy, and A Father’s Love – Part 1 in a series

A Hero, A Tragedy, and A Father’s Love – Originally published in the San Gabriel Valley Weekly in August and September, 2006, I’ll be re-posting one every few days between now and 9/11/11

A series of articles (Parts 1 through 7) reflecting on the events of 9/11/01 and the five years that have elapsed since

Part 1     Part 2       Part 3     Part 4        Part 5       Part 6     Part 7   Part 8, 2011   Part 9, 2012

By Bill Coburn and John V. Napolitano, Sr.

Memorial at IAFF headquarters in Colorado Springs

Back in March, 2002, I received a call from my brother, Lt. John E. Coburn, Jr., (we call him Jay).  He is a paramedic in the Matteson, IL Fire Dept., and a member of the International Assn. of Firefighters (IAFF) Honor Guard for the state of Illinois.  He told me that every year in September, the IAFF holds a memorial service for the firefighters who had fallen in the previous year, from June to June.  He said that because of the World Trade Center bombings in Sept. 2001, there had been very few who had been able to attend that year’s service, because the planes were grounded.  I learned later that only 13 families were in attendance out of 74.  So in 2002, the IAFF was planning to re-honor the fallen of 2000, in addition to the 343 dead from the World Trade Center  and the other 82 fallen from 2001.  “Bill, I lost 400 of my firemen brothers this year, and I’d like to have my blood brothers with me there when we honor them if you can make it.”  It’s not every day that you get an invitation like that.  And I feel sure I’m speaking for thousands of firefighter’s families around the country when I say thank God that it’s not.

 

Me and my brothers Jay and Pat in Colorado Springs

So in any event, I knew that I’d be overcoming any obstacles in the way, and that I’d be going to Colorado Springs in September for the memorial.   When I spoke with my brother Pat, he told me he’d gotten the same call.  Before long, a plan was formulated, and while it didn’t actually get finalized until September, it came to pass that Pat and I joined my brothers-in-law Wayne, Joe and Jim, and we hopped in a motor home for a trip to Colorado.  The trip was an eye-opener in numerous ways, and the kind of trip that causes one to reflect upon one’s life, one’s goals, one’s choices, and how they reflect upon oneself, as well as the lives, goals, and choices of others.  In short, it was thought provoking, it was moving, it was difficult, it was emotional, it was sad, it was uplifting, it was an amazing experience, and I’m glad I went.

But one of the most important things that happened on this trip was to lead to a cross-country relationship with an amazing man, who in turn is the father of an amazing man, a true hero who died in the World Trade Center bombings.  A man who was a hero long before that tragedy struck, through his everyday life as a firefighter in one of the elite firefighting units in the country, Rescue 2 in New York City.  This article is one in a series of articles continuing through the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 “bombings.”  It will take a look at a father’s love, and how that father has coped with the loss of his son by continuing to communicate with that son through letters written on milestone dates such as Christmas, Father’s Day, the anniversary of the bombings, and his son’s birthday, which, coincidentally, happens to be on the Fourth of July.  And the final entry will be a first person accounting of the five year anniversary ceremony held at Ground Zero this coming Sept. 11.

In this series, you will be given a chance to see the father’s reflections on what has happened, his feelings about what has happened, and those who caused it to happen.  I believe that you, too, will find this series to be a look into the mind of an amazing man, and a moving tribute, not only to his son, but to all the heroes who died that day, and those who survived but continue to toil in the first line of defense, as law enforcement agents and firefighters.  A rare look into the depths of the feelings of a father’s love.

I recognize that there were more than 3,000 who died on 9/11.  I do not mean to diminish the deaths of the civilians who were killed, the policemen and Port Authority members, or the military personnel who died at the Pentagon, or the loss that was felt by the thousands more who were touched by their passing.  I do, however, have a personal involvement with the firefighters who gave their lives, and for that matter, those who did not give their lives, but helped to save thousands more lives, and preserve civil order, by their efforts on 9/11/2001.  That involvement is with the first line of defense, police officers and firefighters, including my brother, Jay, who is currently a paramedic in Matteson, IL, and former trainer of Air Force firefighters.  It also includes my brother in law, Bob Burnett, a 22 year veteran on the Sierra Madre Fire Dept., as well as numerous friends who serve as firefighters with SMFD and other departments, and as police officers with SMPD and other departments.

 

At the Memorial, there were many moving tributes, but the New York wall, dedicated to the 343 firefighters (Author’s note: I have since learned there were 344, but the news accounts reflected FDNY dead, and the 344th was a volunteer firefighter from another department) who died Sept. 11, 2001, was overwhelming.  There was a program from a funeral service.  I opened it, and when I began to read the first quote, I just completely lost it and had to stop reading.  It began: “Surprise, Grandpa, I’m here!  I wish I had been able to meet you…” It went on, but when I looked and saw the child’s name, and the note that the child was 20 days old on the day of the service, and then read the names of the other signers, at least one of whom was also a grandchild, I knew I couldn’t read any further.  This was after seeing a photo (click photos to enlarge) of ashes at the

Message in ash written by John V. Napolitano, Sr. at World Trade Center on 9/12/01, Photo courtesy John Napolitano, Sr.

wreckage, in which had been written the words: “Rescue 2 – John Napolitano, I’m here and I love you, Dad.”  Below that was a sketch of a firefighter with a letter, written by that father (below right).

Now I have to confess that I didn’t do a very good job of re-telling that experience when I put asection on my website that was about the IAFF memorial service, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t, because it was because of a desire to correct the information that John V. Napolitano, Sr., contacted me after Googling his son’s name and discovering my pages about the IAFF memorial.  And that occasional “pen pal” relationship has continued through the years, and is the subject of this series.

A little background on Lt. John P. Napolitano, Jr.:  John joined the Lakeland Fire Dept. in Ronkonkamo, NY, at age 17, and worked his way up to eventually become the Chief and Commissioner.  He then was accepted to Rescue 2, an elite firefighting unit based in Brooklyn, NY.  At the age of 33, he was the youngest member of the squad.  Prior to Sept. 11, he had taken the examination to become a lieutenant, and his family was informed after his death that he had passed.  He was promoted posthumously on Nov. 1, 2001.  He leaves behind his wife, Ann, and two daughters, Elizabeth and

Lt. John P. Napolitano, Jr. in 1978, Photo courtesy John Napolitano, Sr.

Emma Rose.  Since his death, the street where he grew up has been renamed in his honor, and the Lakeland Fire Dept. has built a new Firehouse, which has been named for him.  His father John, Sr., spent time as a policeman in New York.

Here is the text of the letter by which I was so moved at the IAFF memorial that day in 2002:

My beloved son:

I miss you so much sometimes the anguish is unbearable.  But I think of your strength, courage and having known firsthand your profound heroism, you give me the strength that I need to continue and to be there for your family as best I can.

You would be very proud of them, Son.  Ann is giving the girls all the love and support that they need, and will not allow a broken heart to get in the way.  Elizabeth and Emma miss theirDaddy and cry for you, but even at a young age, they seem to know how to pull it together and be there for their Mommy.  Your three girls are doing you proud, and although their hearts are broken, their spirit is strong, and their love for you is the cement that holds them together, and nothing will tear them apart.  That my Son, I can promise you.

Letter on Memorial Wall at Colorado Springs, Photo courtesy John Napolitano, Sr.

I was so lucky to have you, not every father is fortunate enough to have a son that he could look up to.  You dedicated your life to helping people and saving lives, you demonstrated at an early age a maturity and profound sense of decency not found in a great many people.  You took your profession very seriously but not yourself.  You had a great sense of humor, and it was deeply appreciated by your friends, and so was your love which you gave so freely.

Your friends miss you so much my Son, they (unreadable) you so, and my heart breaks for them.  I visit from time to time with your fellow firefighters, and when they speak of you, there is a (unreadable) and they all say the same thing, that you were special, and I understand, because for me my Son, you always were and always will be special.  Our time together was too short, and my anguish is unrelenting, but with all the anguish and the pain, I would endure it again and again, because having you was a beautiful gift, and it would have been a far greater tragedy to never have had you at all.  I walk about the house and the memory of you is overwhelming.  I see the great man that you grew to be, but I still hear the childhood laughter.  The squirrels in the attic that you tried so hard to catch for me, are gone.  It’s as if they know that you are not here, and the game is over.  Perhaps they cry too.  I wish that they would come back so that maybe you would hear them, and you would come back to catch them, and I can see you again.  I will never say goodbye to you, my Son.  I will be proud of you forever, and love you always.

Dad

Up next, a look at the letter I received from Mr. Napolitano, in which he recounts the events of 9/11/01 and his search for his son at Ground Zero.

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