A Hero, a Tragedy and a Father’s Love, Part 7 in a Series

Tomorrow –  2011 Message from John Napolitano, Sr. regarding the ten year anniversary of 9/11.

Part 1 in the series           Part 2 in the series           Part 3 in the series  

Part 4 in the series          Part 5 in the series           Part 6 in the series

Reposted September 10, 2011 – Seventh and final article 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 posted in the San Gabriel Valley Weekly in 2006 

By John V. Napolitano, Sr.

September 12, 2006

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

Dear Bill,

Yesterday, a Nation mourned once again, the Fifth Anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001.  For some it was a re-opening of old wounds. For others it was the pain of wounds that never heal. This year my oldest daughter Dawn was going to be with me when I went down to Ground Zero with her “Uncle Lenny”.  Lenny has been an uncle to Dawn since the day that she was born  in Brooklyn,  New York, May 25th, 1970, three months after I was Honorably Discharged from the Army, and almost down to the wire when my Army health insurance would have run out, and her Mother and I would have faced some serious bills.  But that would  be Dawn, just the beginning of keeping us “on our toes”.  May 25th was also the birthday of Lenny’s younger brother, John.

Dawn Ann Napolitano, or “Dawnee”  as Lenny always called her, was two years younger then her brother John, and no two siblings could be  more different…John quiet…Dawn loud…John low keyed…Dawn flamboyant…John ask him once…Dawn keep on asking…John homework yes…Dawn what homework? Well you get the picture. Once my neighbor laughingly shared a story with me, she told me that when the school bus dropped the kids off after school, that there was some teasing and pushing that looked like it was going to get out of hand, she went on to say that “Your Son, Johnny, was trying to  be the peacemaker…but Dawn threw her books down on the ground, and said to the kids that were being unruly.. “Let’s Go”…Dawn and John…brother and sister…opposites…where John would say  “let’s think about this” Dawn would say “let’s see what happens”. Although different in many ways…no brother and sister were ever closer, the bond that they had for each other could never be broken. Not even by a skyscraper.  Today Dawn, the “tough” one was going to “Ground Zero”.  Today we will see how “tough” Dawn is.

Dawn is also bringing her special son and special daughter.  Some call it stepson, or stepdaughter, but Dawn doesn’t like that word.  And neither do I.  She loves them as a mother, and they love her right back.  At home my wife is babysitting Dawn’s four year old son, named John, after his Uncle John.  We know that John Grosso will keep his grandmother on her toes because he inherited a great deal of his mother’s genes. But we need for my wife to stay busy this day, and hope that “baby John” lives up to all of our expectations. I think of my grandson, and also look at my grandchildren Danielle and Christopher and my daughter as we leave, and I think to myself “what a good mother Dawn turned out to be”.

We pick up Lenny and head into “the City”. There is a lot of traffic in Manhattan, I find a parking space several blocks away from the World Trade Center, but made good time and will not be late for the Ceremony. I am nervous.  We walk to “Ground Zero”, and Lenny is telling Dawn about where we entered the Trade Center that first day, and the days after. The more we walk, and the closer we get, the more solemn everybody seems to be.  The streets are congested, as Manhattan streets get. Dawn walks faster and is slowly getting ahead of us, I walk quicker to keep up, Lenny, Christopher, and Danielle following closely.  But Dawn is looking straight ahead, picking up her pace, she hears in the distance the bagpipes playing, she is getting closer, and almost running to what is not there…running to her brother.

I show my ID to those in charge of security, and we are let into the viewing area, it is crowded, it seems more crowded then last year, the names of those that were lost that day in September are being said over loudspeakers, and with each name a heart breaks, and the sound of crying is all around you.

I hold my Son’s photo, sometimes near me, sometimes in the air. Others are doing the same with their loved ones, I see familiar faces, but this year I notice a difference. The faces are getting older. But the smiling faces of Angels held high are still the same.

We walk with the crowd towards the ramp that will descend to where the towers were. The first bell rings…the north tower is hit.  Lives are lost. Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers are gone forever.  Everybody stops moving and are silent…except for the sobs.

The names of the lost are said again.  The procession down the ramp continues. Volunteers are giving out water or snacks.  It reminds me of those days in September.  People giving out nourishment to those who searched, and sometimes giving a shoulder to lean on.  Everybody that is in the “Basin”, or what was sometimes called the “Pit” of the Trade Center, are looking at the photos held tightly, the faces of each others loved ones, sharing each others pain. Civilians, Police Officers, Firefighters, Servicemen. Strangers hugging strangers. The Bell rings again, the south tower is hit.. and people are dead… Everyone is silent, except for the crying.  The names are said again. We stand by the south tower, waiting to hear, Glen Pettit, Peter Brennan, William Mahoney, and Lenny’s brother, John Crisci. I hear Dawn sniffling. Her eyes are red, Christopher and Danielle their heads bowed.  Lenny and I look at each other, and we remember.

We hear the name John Crisci, and soon after, the bell rings…the south tower has collapsed.  People are dead. Lenny, tears streaming down his face, looks up at the sky, and salutes his brother.

Dawn is crying.

We walk with the crowd towards the north tower, I look at all the faces.  My 9/11 family.  I look at the children, and I am suddenly aware of another thing that is different. The children are older. Babies are toddlers, toddlers are youngsters, youngsters are teenagers, and the teenagers, they may be the young men and woman that I see in uniform.  Children of the victims and of the Heroes of that day in September. Children of our fallen firefighters and police officers, America’s first Patriots (of the 21st century). They have picked up their mother’s or father’s banner and are now the Defenders of Freedom…for us and for others.  A group of Marines pass by me and as they do, I thank them for their service, and I shake each and every one of their hands. So much the same, this five year Anniversary, and yet so much different.  Dawn looks at everything around her.  A mother wearing a photo of her child is crying.  She goes to her knees and with her hand scoops up some dirt, but to her I know that this is more than dirt, this is sacred. It is her child that she is trying to hold. Dawn is crying.

The bell rings. The north tower has collapsed.  I see a baby behind a glass partition, he is asleep so peaceful.  My father is at my side, he is smiling. I am a Dad. I am so happy. I can’t wait to play with him, to take him to the park…to the zoo.  I know already that I am going to get him a dog.  I can’t believe it. I am a Father. The adventure begins.

I see an Infant that never seemed to cry, he was awake when he was supposed to be awake, slept when he was supposed to be asleep. This being a Father, was so easy.  I remember the toddler who would always smile at me as I held him in my arms, he would pull on my nose and ears, and I would bury my face in his stomach and he would laugh.. The little boy who on Christmas morning, would patiently wait until his younger sisters opened their gifts, before he opened his, and would try to not get in their way as they scurried all about looking to see what was theirs.  I see a teenager who one day came home with firefighter’s gear.  A teenager who would devote his free time as a volunteer firefighter.. A teenager who decided that he wanted to help people.

I close my eyes and see a young man marry his high school sweetheart, I see him join the fire department of the City of New York, still volunteering with the Lakeland Fire Department. I see the young man become a Dad. I see my Hero.

I see a fire truck come to a stop at a horrific scene, from above is great danger; steel and concrete and glass is falling. And so are people.  Seven members of an Elite Rescue Unit exit their rig, secure whatever tools they are going to need, go into the horror, walking into where so many are trying to flee. People are in trouble. People need to be saved. There are many brave heroes this day. Of the seven from Rescue 2, one of them is my son.   I know that all these heroes did what my son did. They used all of their skill, and all of their courage, to save lives. And I also know that they thought what my son thought. He thought of his wife, and his children, he thought of his sisters, and he thought of his mother.. And he thought of me.

The bell rings. Lives are lost. My son is dead…and then a name…John P Napolitano.  I become aware of someone crying loudly. It is my daughter, Dawn. She is standing straight, her arms at her side, her eyes closed. And she is crying.  I stood close but left her alone most of the day, so that she could reflect on what she saw, to leave her with her thoughts…she now saw her brother die…I put my arm around her, and hold her as she grieves for her brother.  “Tough guys” do cry.

I go to a pool of water where the north tower once stood, it is filled with flowers and photographs, of our Loved Ones. On a bed of flowers I put my son’s picture.  The names are being said.  I speak to my son, and in a while it is time to go, Dawn, Lenny, Danielle, Christopher, and I head for the ramp that will lead us out of the “Pit”.  Back home, my wife is watching everything on television, the camera zooms in on a photograph in the pool of roses, and the newsman says the name. “Lieutenant John P. Napolitano”.  And a Mother cries.

We walk slowly up the ramp, we are all very much tired, and emotionally spent.  This fifth year Anniversary, had a few differences, but one thing kept nagging at me, I kept looking for the firefighter that had my son’s picture in his hat.  Every year I would meet him and his wife, we would cry, we would hug.  One year when he was looking for me, I said that my son would show the way.  But this year we didn’t meet…”well last year wasn’t as crowded”, and “anything could have happened,” I thought.  But still I was a little disappointed.

Dawn was misty eyed as we slowly walked up the ramp, looking at the pictures being held high by those still going down. I held another picture of my son close to me as I walked on.  Dawn will remember this day for the rest of her life; I looked at Danielle and Christopher, and I know that today they got a little older.  Lenny and I would look at each other every now and then, and no words had to be said, we would just shake our heads.  I think about all the indecision of what kind of Memorial should be placed here.  What would be a fitting tribute to all who were lost that day in September.  What will make a statement.  And an idea came to me, the answer was so simple, and it stared at everyone right in the face. LEAVE IT ALONE.  Simply leave it alone.  A big hole in the ground.  A hole that could never be filled.  Surround it with the faces, of all who were lost, leave the ramp so that all can come to visit, and look upon the faces.  And have them look back at us, I turned to look back at the “Pit”, to see the big hole surrounded by faces, and as I was looking down, I heard “Mr Nap”…”Mr Nap”. I turned, and on the other side of the rope going down the ramp was my son’s friend, the tall firefighter, and his wife. Tears streaming down their faces, and soon down mine.

“We looked all over for you”, he said as he hugged me, he almost lifted me over the rope that separated us, his wife loosened it so that I could step through, we held each other for a long time, he was crying, I hugged his wife, she was crying, then back to hugging him.. The Honor Guard of Police Officers and Firefighters, that stood near us were wiping tears from their eyes. We spoke for a while, I hugged his wife and then him one last time, and I gave to him the photo of my son that I was carrying, and I said.. “here, you’re in charge of this”.  As the firefighter and his wife walked down the ramp, I walked up, and even though I was crying, I smiled…I know that my Son answered me.

John Napolitano, Father of,
LT John P Napolitano FDNY Rescue 2

Editor’s note:  I want to thank John Napolitano, Sr. for sharing his thoughts with us these last couple weeks with letters written especially for this series.  And for letting me publish the letters that he has written to me the last couple years, and the letters he has written to his son since 9/11/01. John writes his son each year on his birthday (the 4th of July), at Christmas, on Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, and sometimes in between.  The letters can be found on a website called Legacy.com, and you can view them by clicking on the link to World Trade Center, and entering John’s name.  If you view the John Napolitano guestbook, you’ll find page after page of memorials, words written by John Jr.’s family and friends, and by complete strangers.  Strangers that have been moved to write a few words of remembrance, some to comfort his family, some to respond to other tributes, some that are written just because the viewer couldn’t read all they’ve read without adding their own thoughts. 

I think back to the day I first learned about John, at the IAFF memorial for fallen firefighters in Colorado Springs.  I remember how it took 19 minutes to recite the names of the fallen New York firefighters, and it gives me the chills just to think of it.  I can’t help but respect and appreciate those who work as firefighters and police officers, putting their lives on the line on a daily basis.  And it fills me with pride to think of my brother Jay, a paramedic in Illinois, and my brother-in-law Bob, a volunteer firefighter in Sierra Madre for more than 20 years.  I’m proud that John Napolitano, Sr. who is, in my mind, a hero for having raised a son to be the man that John Napolitano, Jr. was, thinks of me as a friend.  It is amazing to me to think that because I went to Colorado Springs in 2002 and decided to put my remembrances of that memorial on my website, and because John Sr. Googled his son’s name a couple years later, I now have a “pen pal” relationship with this very special man.  To John, his wife and daughters, and to John Jr’s wife Ann and their daughters Emma and Elizabeth, I wish you the best, and hope that with time, comes peace.  And I want you to know that 3,000 miles away, there is someone who was profoundly moved and affected by hearing the story of your son, brother, husband and father.  Rest assured, I will never forget.