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2 retired NYPD cops forever united by 9/11

Lenny Crisci, left, of Holbrook and John Napolitano

Lenny Crisci, left, of Holbrook and John Napolitano of Ronkonkoma on the corner of Church and Murray Streets in Manhattan. Crisci lost his brother, Lt. John Crisci from Haz-Mat 1; Napolitano lost his son, Lt. John P. Napolitano of FDNY Rescue 2. (Sept. 11, 2011) Credit: Steven Sunshine

The photographs clipped to lanyards they wore around their necks spoke volumes -- of courage, sacrifice and heartbreak.

Wherever Lenny Crisci and John Napolitano went Sunday, whether on the subway, along city sidewalks or in the World Trade Center memorial plaza, people reached out in support and gratitude.

Two police officers at a Hunters Point Avenue security checkpoint waved them through, no fare needed. A station agent called "Hello! Hello!" to get their attention and sprang from the seat in her booth to applaud. Once in downtown Manhattan, those in uniform, especially, paid their respects.

Those gestures were like countless others that Crisci, 63, and Napolitano, 62, both received, and handed out, back in September 2001. It was then that the two retired New York City police officers spent five days in the smoking pile at Ground Zero, digging through scrap metal and rubble in the hopes of rescuing the two most important firefighters in their lives.

For Crisci, it was his brother John Crisci, 48, of Holbrook, a lieutenant with the FDNY's hazardous materials unit, who worked on Sept. 11, 2001, so he could be off for his son Michael's birthday a few days earlier.

For Napolitano, it was his only son, also named John, 33, a boyish hot shot with Rescue Company 2 who was admired by department elders for his sharp instincts and respectfulness.

"I prayed to find my son," Napolitano said of those days at Ground Zero. "When all hope was lost, I prayed to find someone else's son."

For the bereft men, the pilgrimage to the trade center site was part and parcel of a lifelong journey. Their mothers pushed them in carriages along Withers Street in the Brooklyn neighborhood where they grew up. They cannot remember not knowing one another.

The pair visited the site together each Sept. 11 for the first five years after the attacks. Then, about four years ago, Napolitano moved with his family from Ronkonkoma to Wellington, Fla. After his wife, Joanne, heard him give an emotional speech at a 9/11 ceremony last year in West Palm Beach, she insisted that the Napolitano family members mark the 10th anniversary together at the place where their "Johnny" last stood.

Crisci, too, was accompanied this year by his family, including his wife, Mildred, and daughter, Christina.

So the group made the journey, meeting and greeting others heading to the same destination. On a downtown-bound A train, the men laughed and talked shop with a uniformed Miami police officer who once worked as a beat cop in the Bronx. In lower Manhattan, they approached a uniformed Marine sitting on a park bench to thank him for his service, and apologized for taking up his time. "Take all the time you need," the Marine said sympathetically.

Upon passing metal detectors and entering the World Trade Center site, the mood was part wake, part family reunion. Uniformed colleagues of the two fallen firefighters stopped to hug Crisci and Napolitano. A group of Santa Cruz, Calif., police officers who on the first Sept. 11 anniversary had lent Napolitano a tie tack to pin up his son's photo, called him on his cellphone, and they arranged to meet up at the intersection of Barclay and West streets.

"My heart's beating very fast," Crisci said as he moved closer to Ground Zero. To this day, he said, he regrets not getting to the trade center earlier on that day, believing he somehow could have saved his brother. "I'm feeling tremendous hurt."

As the names of victims were read, both men shared memories of the time they spent there a decade ago. On Sept. 12, Napolitano recalled, he scrawled a message in the ash to his son: "I'm here and I love you -- Dad." Crisci described laboring through thick clouds of toxic dust and debris.

"I'm healthy . . ." Crisci began to say -- and just then, a bell rang. It was 9:59 a.m. The bell marked the time that the south tower collapsed.

"Oh," Crisci said, startled. "My brother just died."

The men shouldered their way through the crowd and withstood the waves of emotion that drove several families away before they could reach the plaza. High above his head, Napolitano held a black-and-white photo of his son, the word "Courage" written underneath.

At about 11 a.m., they finally reached the National September 11 Memorial.

"God almighty," Crisci gasped. "Wow."

Napolitano quickly found his son's name, etched into the stone around the South Pool. He stood by it, bowed his head and closed his eyes.

"You look at it and you feel a sense of anger, tremendous loss and profound pride all at the same time," Napolitano said of his son, the father of two girls. "He wasn't a hero because of a single act on a tragic day. He was a hero because of how he lived his life."

Minutes later, Crisci found his brother's name engraved along another side of the same pool. As his wife and daughter explored the rest of the memorial plaza, Crisci spent a brief moment alone, holding his brother in his thoughts and heart.

"I love you very much," Crisci said, his voice cracking. "I'm sorry."

He touched the small photograph of John Crisci that his daughter had taped beside her uncle's face. Then he turned back to his family and his best friend.

"Let's go home," he said.

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