A Hero, A Tragedy, and A Father’s Love – Part 2 in a series

August 21, 2011 – Repost of the second in a series of articles reflecting on the events of 9/11/01 and the five years that have elapsed since, through the words of one victim’s father, originally printed in San Gabriel Valley Weekly, 2006

By Bill Coburn and John V. Napolitano, Sr. 

Lt. John P. Napolitano, Jr. in 1978, photo courtesy of John Napolitano, Sr.

In the first article in the series, I told you about having traveled to Colorado Springs with members of my family to join my firefighter brother at the memorial for the fallen firefighters of 2001, including the 343 who died at the World Trade Center.  I introduced you to Lt. John P. Napolitano, through a letter written by his father in January of 2002, which had been displayed at the memorial.  An entirely new wall had to be built for the 9/11 fallen, as the existing wall was not designed to deal with that many casualties. 

During the ceremony, it took 19 minutes to read the name of the fallen firefighters, from the World Trade Center alone.  I decided to post some of the photos and some of my thoughts on the experience, and due to some factual errors, I was contacted in mid-2004 by Lt. Napolitano’s father, who filled me in on the actual events of that day.  While the following letter is out of order chronologically for the series, I felt that this was the best place in the series to put it, because it gives a description in Mr. Napolitano’s own words about what happened that tragic day in 2001.

Dear Bill,

My name is John Napolitano, and I am the father of Lt John P. Napolitano from Rescue 2, FDNY. I wanted to send to you a clearer version of my tribute to my son and tell you how it came about. 

I had some time as a NYC Cop and got to the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/12/2001, to search for my son.  With me was my best friend from childhood, Lenny Crisci.  He retired from the NYPD, we grew up on the same street in Brooklyn 5 houses from each other…we were searching also for his brother John also from the FDNY…and three of my son’s friends from our neighborhood, one Police Officer, and two Firefighters.  My son John went to school with two of them and all of them volunteered their time with the Lakeland Fire Dept, from which my son was once Chief of the Dept, and then Commissioner.

Lenny and I were overwhelmed by what we saw, and like many that were there will taste the ashes forever. I still see myself climbing on the debris, not knowing where to look, but looking through twisted steel and calling my sons name, and hoping to hear him call back to me..”I’m here Dad!…I’m here!!..” I would try so hard to hear that.. and when it didn’t happen, I would cry… maybe if I yelled louder..

Lenny and I would ask the Firefighters that were there if they knew anything about my son, or Lenny’s brother, or my son’s friends…but they could only shake their heads, and look down…the pain in our eyes, only adding to the pain in theirs… at some point at a Triage area, I wrote with my finger in the ash on the wall a message to my son.. I wrote… “Rescue 2 John Napolitano I’m here and I love you Dad”… The Firefighters treated my message to my son as a shrine, and some have told me that whenever they would collapse near it from exhaustion, that they would look at it, and put their helmets back on and go back to the “Pile”… and in the days after I wrote to my son, Firefighters and Rescue Workers from all over wrote messages back to me to let me know that they were there, and to not give up “Hope”

That day on Sept 12 near a Fire Truck, under a steel beam, Lenny and I found the body of a young girl…she was wearing a sundress, and covered with gray ash… this was somebody’s “little girl”.. somewhere people were worried about her and missing her…my heart was so broken…she didn’t deserve to die like this.. and I didn’t want her to be alone.. Lenny and I made a cross from scraps of wood and we stood it near her and said a prayer… I will never know her name and her family will never know that someone prayed for and loved their baby… but after we alerted nearby Rescue Workers and moved on… I thought that if my son was gone, and found by someone… that they would pray for him… and even if for a little while…love my baby.

Photo courtesy of John Napolitano, Sr.

I had the very best Son…and for 33 years he gave me the most wonderful adventure.

It has been said that it is not the destination that matters but the journey… and although John reached his destination too soon, and his journey was much too short…John’s journey was magnificent… and watching the chapters in my Son’s life, living his dream to help others…being a devoted husband and father…a loving and caring brother…a trusted and good friend to so many.. and to his Mother and me.. the very best Son… he has made my journey Magnificent.

John Napolitano, father of Lt. John P. Napolitano, Rescue 2 FDNY

Going back in time, now, here are excerpts from a letter written by Mr. Napolitano on July 4, 2002, the day his son would have celebrated his 34th birthday.  Just less than a year after the bombings, Mr. Napolitano was in a very reflective mood, looking back on the birth of his son and the atmosphere in the country at that time in 1968, his son’s childhood, teens and his career.  He also discusses the trip he made with his daughter-in-law to clean out his son’s locker.

My Son, I love you, and I miss you so much. Today is your birthday, and all week as this day was approaching, I knew that it would be an emotional day.  Well Son, emotional would be an understatement. You would always jokingly say, “toughen up”, and I tried my best to take your advice, all day I thought about so many things, starting from the day you were born.  July 4th, 1968, they were difficult times, I was a young soldier in an Army that no one appreciated or respected, the country was divided, and words like Honor and Patriotism did not seem to exist in the English language.  We were at War with others and sometimes with ourselves, everybody had a different opinion as to what it meant to be an American, we were a house divided. 

Then you were born, and although the times were confusing one thing that I was so certain of, was that I was so happy to become a father, you made me so proud.  But that was just the beginning of so many things that you would make me proud of. I remember the first time I saw you as I pressed my face up against the glass at the hospital, you seemed to look right at me and you smiled that beautiful smile, that I see to this day. I had a Son, and I just met the man that I would respect and admire the most in this world. I sometimes think of the irony about the day that you were born, a 4th of July baby, Independence Day, born during troubled times, and 33 years later, you would become part of an extraordinary group of Heroes, who showed the World, during a cowardly attack on unarmed  civilians, profound courage.  Heroes who met evil head on with Professionalism, dedication, and compassion, and a courage so great that it has inspired all Americans, and has united this Nation in a way that we have never been united before.

You were a good baby, you slept when you were supposed to, you were up and about when we were, you ate whatever we gave you, and although you cried sometimes as babies do, it seemed that you only cried until your point was made, and then you stopped, and then you would smile that beautiful smile, that I miss so much. You were a good child and a good teenager, you excelled in school and were a member of the National Honor Society.  I always waited for the other shoe to drop. It never did. You also were an excellent artist, you could draw anything, I envisioned so many professions that you would master.  One day I came home and saw Fireman’s gear in the house, you became a Junior Volunteer at the Lakeland Fire Department, a hobby I thought, a passing fad.  I was wrong, you had found your calling, you loved people and didn’t judge them by size shape or color, you had respect for others and wanted to save lives, when someone was in trouble you didn’t pause to find out if they thought the way you did, or prayed to your God, to you it didn’t matter, all life was equal, and you were going to give it your best to save them.

You moved up at a steady pace with the Lakeland Fire Department, while also becoming a New York City Firefighter.  You served two Fire Departments, and two communities with professionalism, integrity, and courage.  You became a Lieutenant, a Captain, a Chief, the Chief of the Department and then one of the Commissioners for Lakeland, and you were awaiting your promotion to Lieutenant with the FDNY, you married your High School sweetheart, and together

Photo courtesy of John Napolitano, Sr.

you both brought two beautiful little girls into our lives. I was so proud of you.  Then the other shoe dropped,  Sept 11th and the World stood still, a terrible attack against innocent people, they were trapped under horrific conditions, but you and others did not stand still, the towers were mortally wounded, and even though you didn’t know when or where the next missile containing innocent victims would strike, you and the other heroes rushed in, you all were towers of courage, you all saved so many lives, you were the eyes for those that could not see, legs for those that could not walk, and you were hope for those that were in despair and had no hope.  The towers came down and in seconds hopes and dreams were shattered.

The time came when I went with your wife to get your belongings from your locker, we went to Rescue 2 and met with your Captain, and your friends, they were so sad and offered to help, but this was something that your wife and I wanted to do.  We went upstairs and out of all the plain lockers yours stood out.  You had pictures of family all over the place, and drawings from your little girls, when we opened the doors there were more pictures, and drawings with notes, “Daddy I Love You”.  All your uniforms were pressed and hanging neatly, we took the notes and pictures down and gently removed your shoes and your uniforms and cried.  On the shelf was your watch and a necklace with a medal of a Saint that your wife gave you, I know that Firefighters don’t wear metal while they work because of the heat, I didn’t see your wedding ring and I asked Ann if she had it, and with tears in her eyes she told me that it was still on your finger that you would never take it off, and I understood…Your wedding ring was a symbol of the love that you had for your wife and your family, and you would not take it off. 

I see the boy and the good and decent man, and today is your birthday, Independence Day, and while others celebrate the birth of a Nation, and though my heart is broken I am so grateful to celebrate the birth of my Son.  You will always be my Son, I will close my eyes and see you, I will remember our games at the Park, the trips to the Zoo, I will remember all the things that you did to make me proud, and I will remember your courage, the courage to work hard, to be a good and decent man, the courage to not take the easy way out, the courage to stand up for what you believe in while still being respectful of others.  I wished you thirty three Happy Birthdays, it wasn’t enough. I want to wish you so many more, but they were Happy for me, you were and always will be everything that a Father could hope for in a son.  Happy Birthday, my son. I love you.