Former FDNY firefighter Joseph Napoli is haunted by the memories of those who hung pictures of their loved ones on the fences surrounding Ground Zero. On Wednesday, Napoli unveiled a new Sept. 11 memorial that he helped create, which will be on permanent display at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Former FDNY firefighter Joe Napoli can still recall the desperate faces staring back at him through the fencing surrounding Ground Zero as they held pictures of their loved ones who never came home that September morning.

The streetscape of a city torn apart by tragedy and despair would come to haunt Napoli, 60, of Brooklyn.

On Wednesday — days before the 21st anniversary of the nation's worst terror attack — Napoli unveiled a Sept. 11 memorial that will go on permanent display at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage recreating those haunting images. 

"I walked past it for six months," Napoli said. "And the sad thing is that on the other side of that fence were family members. And they were holding up signs. And every day they asked me, 'please look for them.' But deep down in my heart I knew. We all knew."

The memorial recreates two interconnected scenes. One half features the fencing dotted by pictures of four friends and colleagues who died in the attack, along with flowers, candles, flags, first responder badges and an authentic city sewer cap. The other side of the display illustrates combat in Afghanistan with a weapon, artillery, and combat boots and soldier's helmet worn in battle.

A separate display features twisted steel from the fallen towers, along with Napoli's FDNY helmet, shovel and safety harness used during the recovery operation. 

Napoli, who served in Hazmat Company 1 in Maspeth, Queens, was off work on 9/11 but raced to the city after he and several firefighters commandeered a city bus empty of civilian passengers. "It was surreal," Napoli said of the scene at Ground Zero. "I remember smoke. I remember papers being all over the place. It was raining paper. You couldn't breathe. Getting our eyes washed out three or four times. Being on bucket brigades … Every time they thought they found somebody we would run over and start digging."

The project took Napoli and combat veteran Bob Inslee, 59, of Massapequa Park, two-and-a-half weeks to complete. During that time, Napoli said he had vivid dreams in which he was visited by his FDNY brethren who died in the collapse.

"It brought back a lot of memories. It brought back a lot of feelings. It brought back a lot emotion," he said. "… My impact with Ground Zero was that fence and the people looking at me. And that's what I would dream. That was my nightmare. This fence with eyes behind it. Hopeless eyes that I couldn't do anything with."

Retired Marine Sgt. John O'Dougherty, 59, of Valley Stream, who consulted on the project for the museum, was 13 years removed from his retirement from the Marine Corps at the time of the attacks and running a small construction company. The attacks motivated O'Dougherty to re-enlist in 2006, and he served another tour in Afghanistan in 2008 before retiring from the military earlier this year.

"I lost a lot of friends in Afghanistan and a lot of guys are still bearing scars from Afghanistan, myself included," said O'Dougherty, who works as chief inspector for Nassau's Department of Public Works. "So remember that. These guys gave up everything."

With the anniversary of the attacks days away, Napoli hopes his piece evokes strong emotions. "I hope they walk away feeling the sadness and the darkness of that day," he said. "You have to pass this on to the next generation. And you can't forget."

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