A Hero, A Tragedy, and A Father’s Love, Part 6 in a Series

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

Reposted Sept. 9, 2011 – Sixth 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 

By Bill Coburn and John V. Napolitano, Sr.

In this continuing 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.  In the second article, I brought you a letter that John’s dad, John Napolitano, Sr., had written to me after he discovered a section of my website that discussed his son.  In these articles, we’ve taken a look at the world of a father who lost his son, and the emotions that have played a part in his life since then. 

Here, in John Napolitano Sr.’s own words, are his memories of the tragic day and those following it, and his thoughts as we approach the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.  Next week’s column, the last in the series, will be John Napolitano Sr.’s first hand account of the fifth anniversary ceremony at Ground Zero.

Dear Bill:

As we approach the fifth anniversary of that terrible day in September, I would like to take the time to thank everyone who has reached out to the Family of Lieutenant John P. Napolitano and let us know that you have taken him into your Heart, and that you will always remember and honor his sacrifice.  People like Sgt. Brian McDonaugh from the New York City Police Department, and his wife Beth.  At “Ground Zero”, Sgt. McDonaugh saw a message written in the ashes by a father searching for his missing firefighter son… “Rescue 2 John Napolitano I’m here and I love you Dad”.. Sgt. Mc Donaugh, a father himself, was so moved by what he saw, that he wrote it down word for word so that, as he later said…“I wouldn’t forget”.  Later that evening when he got home, he showed his wife Beth what he saw, and together they cried.  Later Beth and her husband contacted me and told me that they will always keep a picture of my son, and tell their children about him, and that they will always honor him, and I know that they will.

John Napolitano, Sr. with John, Jr.'s two daughters, photo courtesy of John Napolitano, Sr.

And then there is the Thurston family from Colorado, who at the 2002 Ceremony for Fallen Firefighters promised me that they will always “look after” my Son, and they have.  Every 4th of July, John’s birthday, every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, and every 9/11 anniversary, they go to the Memorial Wall, where my son’s name is etched, and they leave a heartfelt card.  Mrs. Bietler from Pennsylvania, who proudly wears a Memorial Bracelet that says “ LT. JOHN P NAPOLITANO FDNY RESCUE 2  9/11/2001”.  Captain Jeff Pennington, from the Gilbert Fire Department, Gilbert, AZ, and his family, who did a study of John and bonded with a brother firefighter that he never met…Captain Jeff and his family, at their own expense, came to New York to attend a ceremony honoring John, the re-naming of a county road to “Lt. John P. Napolitano Parkway”.  Captain Jeff still calls me from time to time to see how I’m doing, and even came to my home to spend a couple of days with me.  Once while visiting with the guys at Rescue 2, Captain Jeff and I went on two “calls” with them.  Captain Jeff was thrilled and beaming from ear to ear. As I rode in the rig I could feel the presence of my son…and I know that he smiled on us.

And then from Sierra Madre, California, there is you Bill, who have embraced my son and kept his memory alive.. I thank all of you, and on September 11 when I make my pilgrimage to the World Trade Center, my thoughts will also be of all of you, because I know that on that day, that you mourn also.  But I wish to ask of you just one thing, which I will ask in closing.

Recently here in New York there was a dedication to the 343 fallen FDNY firefighters, and one volunteer firefighter, it is an approximately 10 feet high, and 60 feet long bronze sculpture of firefighters and the events of 9/11.  The Memorial is attached to the wall of “10” Company, the firehouse across the street from the World Trade Center.  When I was talking to my daughter-in-law, Ann, about going to the ceremony, and knowing that she wouldn’t be up to it, her and my son’s youngest daughter, Emma Rose, piped up and said “I want to see where Daddy was”.  We were at a school concert.  Elizabeth who now “plays” the violin was in the orchestra.  Ann asked Emma if she was sure about going, and she said that she was.  Ann looked at me to see if I was up for it. I really wasn’t…but I said that it would be okay.  When Elizabeth joined us Ann and I asked her if she wanted to go, and she did.  I knew that this day was going to come.  I was going to take my son’s “little” girls to Ground Zero.

My best friend Lenny, who was always with me those days in September, as we searched for my son, and his (Lenny’s) brother John, would also go to the ceremony, and bring his daughter Christina.  We arrived early that day, parked the car and secured our seats, Firefighters were setting up for the Ceremony, speakers and equipment were being tested for those that would present speeches this day, Lenny and I, as we always do when we are at the Trade Center, were reminiscing.  My mind was also elsewhere.  I walked to where my granddaughters were sitting.. They’re getting so big I thought and so beautiful.  They were talking to Christina and smiling.  Now to take their smiles away.  I asked them if they were ready to hear about their Daddy…and others. They said that they were.  I told Christina that we would be back; I gave Lenny a silent nod.  This one time my good friend would not be at my side.  We were each others rock those dark days, but today the rock that I would lean on would be my son.

I placed my hands on my Granddaughter’s shoulders and guided them towards what had changed their lives forever.  As we walked along the security fence to an area where only family members and Authorized Personnel are permitted, the girls were looking at what seems to be a big hole left by some catastrophic meteor.  I showed my ID to security, and they opened the large gate and let us in.  Once inside this secure area you are struck by the sight of all that has been placed there, from beat-up teddy bears, to badges, firefighter and police shirts, a helmet of a British “bobby”…notes and photographs, of loved ones of the missing.  Things that were placed at “Ground Zero”.  Things that say “I Will Never Forget”.  Things that say “I Love You”..

I took the girls to where you can see the whole “site”, to where the Towers used to be.  I pointed to where the South Tower once was, and I told them that is where “Uncle Glen” (Police Officer Glen Pettit), “Uncle Pete” (Firefighter Peter Brennan), and “Uncle Billy” (Firefighter William Mahoney), and their “Pop Pop’s” good friend John, (Lt. John Crisci) was.  And I gave them a moment to reflect.  I pointed to where the North Tower once stood, and I said to the girls “That is where your Daddy was”.  I explained to them as was told to me by an eyewitness…How the Rescue 2 rig came through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and up West Street.. Of how the seven members of Rescue 2 geared up for battle, looked up at the enemy before them, and with no fear, but armed with Professionalism, Compassion and Courage, and with a look of Determination on their faces, paused only to give each other knowing glances…and strode into the North Tower to save lives.

Elizabeth and Emma listened to every word, but looked straight ahead, looking at what is no longer there. Their father, his helmet black, his black protective coat, burned and covered with soot.  Is this what they saw?  Or did they see their Daddy in his shining armor?  I explained to them that their Daddy went into Battle that day thinking of them, and their mommy…of his mother and me, and his sisters…of all of us. And that he was an excellent firefighter, and that he would do all that he could, use all his skill and courage to beat the enemy. To save all the other Mommies and Daddies.  And that he didn’t want to leave us.  But there was one enemy that he did not know about, and this enemy could not be beat…this enemy was time.

Elizabeth and Emma didn’t ask any questions.  They stared at the nothingness. Whatever thoughts they had, I know that when they are ready they will ask. I told them that the Ceremony was about to begin and that we should go.  We left through the Security Gate from which we entered, and along the fence that surrounds “Ground Zero”, I stood between them holding them by the hand, and as we were walking, both Elizabeth and Emma, at the same time, looked over their shoulder, at where the North Tower once stood, and I wondered, was it for a hopeful one last look at their Dad?  I looked straight ahead, putting on my sunglasses…like I did so many times when I was with Lenny, leaving the “Pit”…not wanting anyone to see the tears.

I have recently volunteered to devote some time with Tribute New York City.  It consists of people impacted by 9/11 who share their experiences with those who come to the World Trade Center to reflect and pay their respects. Some are survivors who escaped the Towers, some are family members, or rescue workers, or rescue workers who were fathers searching for their sons.  I went on three tours so far, and it is very hard on me, the last tour were members of the press.  I was asked by a reporter why do I do this, and does time heal some wounds, and I told him that I would explain during the tour, when I am introduced. The tour guide started our walk around the World Trade Center describing the buildings and the building process, as we walked she explained the events of the day, where the planes came from, what floors were impacted, the response from firefighters, and police officers and EMT’s. We walk to the World Financial Center, and the Tour Guide this day talks about her cousin who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, and she speaks of his family..  then she introduces me.

The group looks at me like they know that they are going to hear some important things.  It is going to be more than what they expected.  I tell them what I do for a living, but that I was once a cop who worked in Brooklyn, I tell them that my son was a firefighter assigned to Rescue 2, and how on September 11, 2001 my son was scheduled to be off.  Of walking into one of the stores that I supervise, walking to the back loading area and being asked “What are you doing here?  Don’t you know they’re calling for cops, and ex-cops? We’re being attacked.”  This is how I found out about the Towers being hit.  The South Tower collapses. I tell them how I keep on trying to call my son, I knew that he would be going, I wanted to tell him to be careful.. not to be a hero.  His phone was busy. I keep on trying, still busy.  I call my house, I tell my wife that “I can’t get through to Johnny”…she is crying, she tells me that it is Ann on the phone, that Johnny worked last night…somebody switched with him. That he is already there.  I try to get into the City but can’t, I decide to head home…figure something out.. find out what is going on.  The North Tower comes down…my son is not in there…no way.  He has people safe somewhere…I know this…he is an excellent firefighter.

I arrive at my son’s house first.   Ann is sitting on the couch surrounded by her and my son’s friends…a tearful smile as she sees me…the girls going on 3 and 6 quietly playing.  Ann tells me there is no word.  I tell her not to worry, everything will be alright.  I go to my home a little more than a mile away.  My wife sitting, a blank look on her face, her sister next to her crying, my brother-in-law Cono looking worried. “Listen everybody…everything will be okay.”  I go back and forth from my house to my son’s.  It’s getting late, traffic should be better, I start to head into the City, Cono wants to come with me.  We don’t get far. His cell phone rings.  Cono tells me to turn around and head home. I ask him…“is my Son gone?”  “No” he says. “Diane is excited, she said to come right home.” I race…through stop signs, through red lights. Cautiously, but quickly, like I was driving a radio car. I run into my house.  My wife is sitting on the floor, she is being held by her sister Diane, and over and over again my wife is saying.. “My Baby.. My Baby”… “No”.. “No”… I hear this in my mind every day.  I tell this to my group… I tell them how a woman carries a child inside of her…is the first person to love that child…Is the first person to suffer for that child.  The child grows up…gets married…has children.. But that child never stops being the mother’s baby..

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

I get through to Rescue 2, they tell me that John and every member of Rescue 2 is missing. I tell them that “I’m an ex-cop, to give it to me straight…Should I expect the worst?”  They tell me that I should stay close to Ann and his mother.  That they don’t know where everybody is, that John could be trapped.  I go to Ann’s house…Her and John’s friends are still there, the girls won’t go to sleep because Daddy didn’t call yet…He always does when he works nights. I asked Ann if she got any other word, she takes me aside and said.. “Dad, Glen, Pete, and Billy are missing too”. I feel my knees buckle, but I have to keep a positive look.  “ Don’t worry Ann.. Everybody could be working, and they don’t know where they are…you’ll see”.  I go home it’s early morning. I call my best friend Lenny.  His brother John is missing. Lenny and I leave for the World Trade Center.

I tell the group that Lenny and I go to a Brooklyn precinct, and they help us into Manhattan, we piggy back rides with different police officers, and hook up with the Fire Department, and Lenny and I arrive at the belly of the devastation.  We walk through the Winter Garden Restaurant area.  We look up at shards of hanging glass 150 feet above our heads…the floor turning to mud from all the ash mixing with water.. Ash from the World Trade Center.. And in time realizing some of the ash…is from people.  We walk outside and onto West Street .. twisted steel is everywhere…some of it reaching up like fingers…smoke rising. And gray ash like fresh fallen snow covering everything.  The sounds of alarms from firefighters not moving…a shrill piercing sound…so many…spots of red that were once people.

I tell the group of moving debris a bucket at a time.  Of someone thinking that I was a “Fed” and giving me a piece of the skin from a plane.  I found a “Fed” and gave it to him.  I climb on steel not knowing where to look, feeling heat from the fires below.  Calling my son’s name in the dark…listening…listening.  Nothing.  Lenny and I asking firefighters did they know anything about Glen Pettit…Pete Brennan…Billy Mahoney…John Crisci…John Napolitano. The sadness in their eyes.  I write a message to my Son, in the ash…still warm…“Rescue 2 John Napolitano I’m here and I love you Dad”.

I tell them how I said to Lenny that if I can find my son’s truck… “maybe I can find him”.. then I see what looks like a rescue truck.  I climb, run, over the steel, Lenny following.  It’s a ladder company truck, almost broken in two, I say to Lenny…“there might be firemen here”…and as we look…we see under a steel beam a young woman.  She is dead, the beam across her head.  She is wearing a sundress, and she is covered with that gray ash, except for a small patch of blue from her dress.  I have two daughters, and as I looked at this Sweet Angel, I thought that this was somebody’s “Daddy’s Little Girl”.. and could she be a young mother and back home her baby is missing her and crying for her.  Which one of the many “missing” posters was she?  This baby did not deserve to die this way.  Lenny and I made a Cross out of the debris, and prayed for her…and for her family, we loved her.  I alerted some passing rescue workers of this young girl…and moved on.  Whenever I think of my Son, I think of her…that is the way it should be.

I tell my group about the messages written back to me, from firefighters, police officers, and other rescue workers.  “Mr. Napolitano I know John.  If anyone could get out of this…he can..”.. “Mr. Nap don’t give up hope.” “Bravo Company was here.”  Lenny and I stood and saw the dead and what was left of the dead being removed. In the days that followed, Lenny and I would go down there with renewed hope. Today I will find my Son. He will climb out of some hole that nobody thought to look.  His helmet and coat will be covered with that gray ash, his face will be dirty.. but he will be alive.  And I will dust him off, and wipe his face, and I will hug him, and I will bring him home to his girls.  “C’mon Johnny, lets go home, your wife and your daughters are waiting…your sisters too…And your Mother is worried.”    

I tell my group about the day that they found Lt. John Crisci, the day they found police officer Glen Pettit, the day they found firefighter William Mahoney…that still missing is Firefighter Peter Brennan, and still missing is my Son…Lt. John P Napolitano.

I also tell them about John’s Journey, how he was so good all his life, not only a good son, but a good student, and a good friend, how he would walk to school and home from school a schoolmate that was overweight, to make sure that no one picked on her.  How he helped other kids in the neighborhood with their schoolwork, always with a smile, the young man who decided to devote his life to helping others.  How he inspired others not only to being a good firefighter, but to being a good husband and dad.  I tell them about the 5 year old girl whose life he saved, the daughter of a firefighter.  I tell them of him crawling about in a collapsing building saving trapped firefighters.  I tell them of one of those firefighters dying with John on September 11, 2001.  I tell them of all the good things that John has done to be a better person to help others achieve their goals. My son’s journey may have been short. But it was magnificent…and in seeing all the pages of my son’s life he has made my journey magnificent.

Back home, Ann had to tell Elizabeth and Emma about their father.  They thought that they had done something wrong because it had been a long time and…“Daddy didn’t call”.  Ann told them, as best she could to a 3 year old and a 6 year old, about bad people hurting other people, and how their Daddy went to save some other little girls, and little boys, mommies and daddies, but that he couldn’t save them all, and that… he couldn’t save himself.  That they will not see their Daddy anymore…because he is in Heaven.  Emma and Elizabeth cried, their little hearts, so filled with love for their Father, broken.  Ann hugged them and told them, to never forget that although they had their Daddy for a short time, that they had…the very best Daddy.

Those early months, I would have the Honor from time to time to baby-sit for my son’s little girls.  They were so much like him.  Emma kind of bold…a sense of humor…Elizabeth, thoughtful, a quiet sensitivity. And a love to draw… I would watch them and see my son.  Emma would point at my son’s pictures and say.. “That’s my Daddy” and I would say “That’s right.. that’s your Daddy”.. Elizabeth would sit quietly and draw.  One day Elizabeth drew something and went into my son’s old bedroom, when I went in there to see what it was, I saw laying on his dresser was a drawing of a little girl with golden hair and written on the drawing were the words…“Daddy I Love You”..

History says that my Son was a Hero because he died saving lives…I say that my Son was a Hero… because he LIVED to save lives.

My answer to the reporter as to why I do this admittedly painful tour was this…that if talking about my son can in some way make others want to be like him, and if more and more people live his life, than maybe… just maybe, we can be a better World and stop killing each other, and have for an enemy a common enemy of sickness and disease, and not each other, so no other Father has to look for his son…in the shadows.

As for time being a healer, I explained to this reporter that time is a relentless enemy, that I miss my Son more, every second, of every hour, of every day…That I don’t need the anniversary of 9/11 to feel the pain.  I see 9/11 every day and will do so till the day I die.  I also feel that if feeling less pain means to have less memory of my Son, I say this: bring the pain on and times it by infinity, because it is no price at all to pay for the Son that I have.

And that one thing that I was going to ask you, and those who Honor John, is this: When you speak of Lieutenant John P. Napolitano, do not dwell so much on his Courage that day in September, or the tragic way that he died, but rather, remember always…the Heroic way that he Lived..


John Napolitano, Father of Lt John P Napolitano, F.D.N.Y. Rescue 2