The day brought out the hero in everyone

I am a city sanitation worker. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2011, with barely two years on the job, I was driving a route with my partner Frank Klapuri that took us north on Ocean Parkway from Avenue M.

At approximately 9 am, I glanced over at my side mirror and saw a man charging my partner on a bike. He seemed extremely upset and out of breath as he talked to Frank while gesturing toward the sky. Curious, I got out of the truck and walked over. When I asked what was going on, I couldn’t believe my ears.

“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center,” the guy on the bike said. “I just saw it on TV!”

For a split second, I thought he must be joking. But I gazed north and noticed a growing cloud of black smoke wafting across the sky. Numerous police and other emergency vehicles suddenly appeared on Ocean Parkway with lights flashing and sirens blaring, heading north toward Manhattan.

The man on the bike identified himself as Lt. Ciro Napolitano, a city firefighter from a firehouse on Avenue U. He had been home watching a program when a news bulletin broke in about how a plane crashed into the Twin Towers. He immediately hopped on his bike and rode to Ocean Parkway, hoping to get to the World Trade Center as quickly as he could.

His next statement took my partner and me by surprise: he asked if we could give him a lift and get him as far down the parkway as possible.

Without giving it a second thought we cleared the hopper, grabbed his bike and secured it in the back. Then we hopped in the truck: me at the wheel, my partner in the other seat and the lieutenant half in and half out of the truck next to my partner.

Napolitano told me to drive down Ocean Parkway’s median. At each intersection I slowed and leaned on the horn while Lt. Napolitano held out his badge and shouted at other vehicles to clear out of the way. This was no small feat since it was still rush hour.

Miraculously, we made it all the way down the Prospect Expressway. But traffic bottled up at the entrance to the Gowanus Expressway and we couldn’t go any further.

That’s when we spotted a fire truck coming up behind us. Napolitano jumped out and flagged them down. We removed his bike from the hopper of the truck as we shook hands and exchanged names. He thanked us over and over as we watched him hitch up his bike to the fire truck and climb in.

The only words I managed to shout out were, “Be safe.”

Frank and I returned to our garage in Borough Park — barely a word spoken between us as the shock of the moment sank in as we made the slow ride back. I don’t know how far we would have gone if we didn’t get caught up in traffic, but as far as my partner and I were concerned, we would have gone all the way to the World Trade Center.

Lt. Napolitano survived the attacks. I was overjoyed to hear the news. At the same time I gained a new respect for our first responders: even those who were not on active duty heeded the call to help their fellow man without hesitation, with some giving their lives in the process.

The world is fortunate to have people like Lt. Napolitano and my family and I are grateful that heroes like him are alive and well in New York City.