As the 16th anniversary of 9/11 neared, steel from the fallen towers of the World Trade Center stood impervious to the roaring wind and lashing rain and surging sea at dozens of memorials in Florida’s hurricane zone.
One of the larger pieces was 35-foot Beam C-46 from the South Tower, now the centerpiece of the Patriot Memorial in the town of Wellington. The people who worked on this place of remembrance included retired New York City rescue medic Mark Harris, who was buried in the rubble and nearly killed when the South Tower came down on Sept. 11, 2001. He had dug himself out and immediately set to saving whomever he could.
In 2010, Harris settled in Palm Beach County and went to work as an EMS liaison with Delray Medical Center. That was the same year that Beam C-46 was transported from Hanger 17 at Kennedy Airport, where the World Trade Center steel was stored. An oversize truck carried it more than 1,200 miles to Wellington.
The column stood in the Florida sun on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, when the first annual parade and remembrance was held at Wellington’s new memorial, one of six in Palm Beach County.
Harris spoke there at the 15th anniversary, but he subsequently fell ill with a rare cancer that was said by a FDNY EMS to be “100 percent related” to his exposure to the toxins at ground zero on 9/11. He died on May 13, and his coffin was brought to the Patriot Memorial for a special remembrance ceremony.
“Why does God give him sickness and let him suffer?” his wife, Brandi Harris, asked when addressing the mourners.
Had he survived, Harris no doubt would have brought the spirit of the 9/11 first responders to the rescue effort in the face of a monster storm projected to be so destructive that ISIS was calling it “a friend of Allah.” He would have been joined in the hurricane zone by the members of the FDNY and NYPD who comprise Urban Search and Rescue New York Task Force 1.
Along with Urban Search and Rescue teams from other jurisdictions, the New York task force has been deployed wherever it was most needed, first to Texas for Harvey, then to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for Irma. The team may well be sent to Florida in the wake of the destruction there.
One firefighter who might have been among them was Fire Lt. John Napolitano of FDNY Rescue 2. He was in the North Tower when it collapsed. His father, also John Napolitano, is a retired New York City police officer and from the very first hours after the Twin Towers fell he joined the rescue and recovery effort, hoping to find his son. The father wrote a message with a fingertip in the still warm ash.
“Rescue 2 John Napolitano. I’m here and I love you. Dad”
The father later wrote a letter to a son whose remains were never found.
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 their Daddy 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.
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.
The father wrote another letter on what would have been the 34th birthday of a son born on the Fourth of July. The father wrote of a nation that had become lost and then found itself thanks to selfless souls such as the younger Napolitano.
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...
When the father later moved to Florida, he feared he would lose a connection to his son by leaving behind the firehouses and police stations of New York. He felt reconnected when he visited a memorial outside the Palm Beach Gardens fire station, whose centerpiece was a 36-foot column that had once extended from floors 12 to 15 in the South Tower.
“This is my cemetery, and when I meet up with police officers and firefighters here, my connection to them is no different than when I was in the presence of a police officer or firefighter in New York,” the father was quoted saying during one visit.
The column had been transported to Palm Beach Gardens in May 2010. The elder Napolitano attended the dedication of the the memorial and wore a T-shirt stenciled with a photo of his son. A woman saw it and said the son had helped her escape from the North Tower. The son and his fellow firefighters had then ascended into ever greater danger.
At the approach of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the father affixed to the rusted steel a drawing of his son along with a picture of the message he had written with a fingertip in the still-warm ash.
The father could not attend a remembrance there this year, as it was canceled, along with the one in Wellington and dozens of others due to the hurricane. The approach of the 16th anniversary of 9/11 saw the father sheltering in place.
“We’re in the middle of the storm right now,” he told The Daily Beast over the telephone. “We’re hunkered down.”
But however bad the storm would prove to be, the father knew his son’s spirit would be out there with the first responders from New York and a host of other jurisdictions, showing that same professionalism, dedication, compassion, and courage as when our nation had been united as never before.
And when the skies clear and the wind relents and the sea recedes, the steel will be there in the Florida sun to get us through the clean-up. Rusted wreckage from 9/11 will stand amid wreckage from the hurricane and remind us how good we can be in the very worst of times, how with true heroes like Harris and the younger Napolitano we really can be the United States of America.