Kevin Shea insists he was just an average firefighter during the years he served in the heart of New York City.
An accounting of his life, though, shows something quite extraordinary.
As a member of the elite Rescue Company No. 1 that covers the Manhattan borough of New York City, he dangled from skyscrapers to rescue people from burning buildings and responded to some of the city’s nastiest fires.
As Shea and fellow firefighters responded to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, he fell four and a half stories through a crater left by the terrorists’ explosives. His leg was impaled on rebar from the concrete rubble and he sustained massive injuries, but eventually recovered.
And as the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Shea’s first impulse was to drive into the city to see how he could help. Retired by that time, the Long Island native spent several weeks poring through the rubble in the dire aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
“I didn’t do anything special,” he said softly. “There were hundreds who went back” to help after the 9/11 bombings.
This time of year gets to Shea, 52, who now lives east of Kalispell.
Ready or not, the memories come.
To understand the depth of his loss, one needs to realize that Rescue 1, the men who still are like family — close family — to Shea, sustained devastating losses that day. Eleven members of the elite force perished in 9/11.
“I lost so many friends. It changed me,” he said. “It leaves you scarred, harder than you were before. It left me a little bit jaded.”
Shea, mild-mannered and comfortably easygoing, admits that in the 9/11 aftermath he wanted nothing but revenge for his fallen comrades.
“I’m not a ‘rah-rah I killed this guy’ kind of guy, but I’d have pressed the button to nuke the entire country” where the terrorists lived, he said. “It wouldn’t have bothered me one bit. Thank God those feelings don’t last.”
What does last is the sequence of events on that fateful day, etched forever into Shea’s psyche.
“I was on the phone with a firefighter I’d worked with from Brooklyn, and he said, ‘Kevin, put the TV on, a plane just hit the Trade Center,’” Shea recalled. “I was watching the [first] plane as it hit and my father called me. All of a sudden the second plane hit. I hung up and drove to the city.”
At that point Shea didn’t realize both towers would collapse, but he knew they’d need extra help.
“When those planes hit you knew it was going to be bad,” he said. “These guys were everything, my social life, they’re like your family.”
Like so many other retired firefighters who showed up out of instinct to help, he grabbed some extra gear, jumped in a pickup truck to get as close as possible, “and we ran the rest of the way,” he said.
Mass confusion and chaos blurred into a recovery effort. All five of New York City’s rescue squads had almost a double shift on duty that morning because the bombs hit during a shift change, Shea explained, so the casualties were staggering. Those who were left regrouped as they could.
A total of 343 New York firefighters and paramedics died that day.
“We kept forming our own teams, constant squads of three to five guys,” he said. “It was the most work I’d ever seen done for the smallest payout. We didn’t find anybody. It was so depressing to not have any successes.”
Four or five days into the search effort, Shea realized he had searched the exact same area where he’d been so severely injured in the 1993 bombing.
Everywhere, fathers were looking for their sons in the rubble, or vice versa. Yet today, the firefighting tradition is so strong in New York that scores of families still have more than one generation of firemen in the family.
“It wasn’t one story; it was hundreds of stories repeated,” Shea said.
At some point, he and others stopped inquiring about the particulars of other firefighters’ losses.
“You’d nod and stop asking,” he said.
Like so many New York firefighters, Shea carried on the tradition in his own family. His father was a firefighter in Harlem and the South Bronx who retired as a captain.
“They always said you can be anything you want when you grow up: a fireman or a cop,” he said with a smile.
Shea, of Irish ancestry, descends from five generations of New York police officers. At some point in the tumultuous 1960s, many of his family members switched their careers from law enforcement to fighting fires.
But the family legacy is nearing an end. Of his 47 first cousins, Shea is the only firefighter and none of them are cops.
He was smitten with firefighting at an early age and can remember wanting to do nothing else. The lure of the profession began as a young boy when his father would take him in the fire truck to pick up his paycheck every other week. By age 12 he was allowed to stay overnight at the fire hall.
By age 24 he scored so well on the tests for incoming firefighters that his fate was sealed.
The competition to be a part of FDNY is fierce. Of the 33,000 applications that year, the list was pared down to about 10,000 who took the tests. He was one of 43 prospective firefighters who scored 100 percent on both the written and physical exams that are given only once every four years.
Shea started fighting fires in 1984 with Engine 227 in Brooklyn. He would have applied three years sooner, but a lawsuit snarled the legal system, he said, so he worked for the Long Island Lighting Co. to bide his time until he became a firefighter.
He joined Rescue 1 in 1989. It wasn’t a job for slackers. Firefighters had to be in top shape to scale several flights of fire-escape stairs in seconds and handle all kinds of rescue situations. A television show in the early 1990s narrated by John Walsh — a national pilot for a TV series that never materialized — pointed out some of the worst fires Rescue 1 handled were in fortified “crack” houses that often were booby-trapped and reinforced to keep intruders out.
Shea was featured in one episode that recounted a daring rescue where he descended from the rooftop and dangled on a rope 12 stories above the street holding a fire victim he rescued. He has a framed photograph of the firefighers who helped with that particular rescue. Of the seven men, three died in 9/11 and two were hurt badly in other fires.
Shea and his fellow firefighters thought they were responding to a transformer fire on Feb. 26, 1993, at the World Trade Center when the initial alarm sounded. The smoke and smell were similar to a transformer fire, he recalled, so they went in not knowing a van with explosives on the B-2 level had blown a giant crater in the building.
In the pitch-black darkness, he and his partner thought they were in a long hallway when they actually were on a parking ramp
Shea wrote a blow-by-blow account of his experience for a U.S. Fire Administration report and analysis of the bombing.
“When I fell, I grabbed onto reinforcing bars sticking out of concrete, but I couldn’t hold on,” Shea recounted. “I hit debris on the bottom at a 45-degree angle, feet first, then fell on my back. My leather helmet saved my life. My face smashed into the concrete when I fell. I was conscious the entire time.”
After the 45-foot plunge he landed a few feet away from fire, not knowing more than 200 cars were on fire, “so mangled they were completely unrecognizable.”
“I tried to sit up but couldn’t,” he wrote in his report. “I felt numb and thought I was impaled on something ... I thought both of my legs were broken. The bone in my left knee was protruding through my boots.”
The toll on his body was extensive: broken left kneecap, broken right ankle, broken nose, fractured skull, impaled left leg, broken ribs and knocked-out teeth.
Afterwards, President Bill Clinton sent him a personal letter, commending him for his brave actions.
Shea was on medical leave for a year and a half, then bounced back and forth between light duty and time off for more surgery.
A movie called “Without Warning: Terror in the Towers,” was made not long after the ’93 Trade Center bombing, starring George Clooney as Shea. It wasn’t a box-office success and Shea rolls his eyes at the film’s distorted portrayal of the chain of events.
After Shea retired in 1998, he took up bow hunting in a big way and continues to love the sport.
“I was looking for something to do after retirement and it sucked me in 110 percent,” he said.
These days he’s planning bow-hunting trips for disabled veterans and occasionally teaches technical rescue classes for Spec Rescue based in Virginia Beach, Va. His two children are grown, and he and his second wife, Lucie, of the Czech Republic, are settled into a home with a view of the Swan Mountain Range.
The adjustment from big-city life to rural living was huge, Shea admitted. He misses the close friends he still has in New York.
Life is quiet, simple and full in Montana, though, and seemingly a world away from terrorist bombings physically, if not mentally. It doesn’t take much for his mind to wander back to the choking blur of those fallen towers.
“It was the first time I had heard the word ‘surreal’ used so much,” he remembered. “That word still keeps coming to mind.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.
Retired New York City Firefighter Kevin Shea, who lives near Kalispell, holds a photograph of group of fellow firefighters taken shortly after a 1991 rescue. Of the seven men, three died while responding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and two were badly injured in other fires. Shea, shown third from the left in the back row, survived the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and spent a month helping with the recovery effort after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.