Retired FDNY firefighter who labored at Ground Zero finds healing in art

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Friday, September 9, 2022
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The retired FDNY member said he hopes it will be a living art display where people will come to add memories of their loved ones who died on 9/11.

OLD BETHPAGE, New York (WABC) -- When retired FDNY firefighter, Joseph Napoli closes his eyes and thinks of 9/11, he pictures the hundreds of eyes of people standing behind the fence at Ground Zero waiting anxiously for news of their loved ones who hadn't returned home.

"I would try not to make eye contact because I knew," Napoli, of Rockaway, said.

When the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage approached Napoli and asked him to make a 9/11 folk art for the museum - as Napoli had produced other art displays for them - Napoli said he knew it was time to face his darkest memories of working the pile after the attacks.

"Deep in my heart, I don't have any closure," he said.

Napoli's display features a fence with flowers, American flags, pictures of missing people and Beanie Babies - all which dotted the fence around Ground Zero.

"That's my memory of Ground Zero - that fence," he said.

Napoli said he always dreaded walking by the fence because behind it he would see the worried faces of people looking for their missing loved ones.

"Walking past that fence, it just ripped my heart out every time," he said.

The display contains pictures of four people who died in the attacks who Napoli knew personally or who were family members of close friends.

The display has an actual sewer cap from lower Manhattan from the day of the attacks, as well as candles, which so many people left at Ground Zero.

Connected to the 9/11 elements in the display is homage to the War on Terror. It features a gun with a military helmet resting on top, as well as combat boots on the ground. The wall is made to look like a building in Baghdad.

Napoli said he knew it was important to remind people of the link between 9/11 and all the men and women who fought in Afghanistan.

War on Terror veteran John O'Dougherty said seeing Napoli's work has helped him process some of the pain he's struggled with following the recent U.S. withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan.

"It makes you remember the why," he said.

Museum of American Armor volunteer Bob Inslee helped Napoli build the display. It took the two a combined 110 hours to create the display.

"It was truly built from the heart with these hands," he said in tears. "It means the world to me."

Napoli said the building process was emotional for him as well. He said he would often find himself crying on the way home. He said first responders live with 9/11 constantly.

"It doesn't come back once a year," he said. "It comes back every day."

Napoli and Inslee hope that people, including the younger generation, will come and look at the display and reflect on what 9/11 means to them, which is why Napoli said he hasn't painted the walls behind the fence and the window of the building in what represents Baghdad. He wants people to imagine what they see there.

Napoli said he hopes it will be a living art display where people will come to add memories of their loved ones who died on 9/11.

RELATED | 9/11 21 years later: Reflections, photos and stories

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