In the photo, sweaty young Mike Kehoe is headed up--all the way up a smoky stairwell in the north tower of the World Trade Center just after 9 a.m. on Sept. 11.
Kehoe wasn’t aware that someone was taking his photograph at that particular moment. He’s a firefighter. His mind was focused on hustling all the way up the tower and evacuating office workers. “Civilians,” as he calls them.
But the shutter was snapped and the frame was frozen--and Kehoe’s boyish face was rocketed around the world by Associated Press. Suddenly, people in England and Australia and all over the United States were wondering:
What happened to that firefighter in the stairwell?
It so happens that Mike Kehoe--husband of Edra, son of Robert, brother of Jimmy and the funniest guy on Engine 28, Ladder 11 on East 2nd Street in the East Village--is very much alive.
You can find him on the night shift, every night, out in the World Trade Center wreckage, 10 hours at a clip, digging and tearing and hauling and looking for the six men from Engine 28 still buried under the mess.
Kehoe made it down the stairs, helped out on the ground floor and then dashed out of the north tower, by his reckoning, a bare 30 seconds before the building shuddered and collapsed. He’s not sure why he got out and 311 other New York firefighters did not. But he knows this much:
“I’m gonna keep going out there and looking for our guys,” he said, gearing up for another night on the search and rescue team.
The six missing men of Engine 28 have their own photos. Kehoe sees them at the firehouse every day, staring out from a memorial just inside the engine bay. There’s Lt. Mike Quilty and firefighters Rich Kelly, Matt Rogan, Edward Day, Mike Cammarata and John Heffernan.
They all have grieving families. After Kehoe and the other firefighters from Engine 28 leave the disaster site every day, they stop in and check on the wives and children of the missing. They ask if there’s anything they can do, although they know the best thing is just being there.
Like most firefighters based in lower Manhattan, Kehoe and his colleagues were at the trade center minutes after the first hijacked plane ripped into the north tower. Kehoe’s unit was already in the truck and hurtling south by the second alarm.
His six-man team--a lieutenant and five firefighters--ran up a stairwell in the north tower. He doesn’t know what floor he was on when John Labriola, an employee from a company on the 71st floor, snapped off a quick shot as Labriola made his way down the crowded stairwell behind other tower workers smeared with soot and grime.
And that was how 33-year-old Mike Kehoe, a Staten Island guy, badge number 12898, the son of a retired New York City firefighter and the brother of another, got his picture in the newspapers. He looked calm and resolute and innocent, just another guy hurrying to work on a Tuesday morning.
Kehoe noticed something odd about all the people hiking down the stairwell. “I was surprised they were so calm and orderly,” he said. “They were evacuating themselves. And you know what? They were all yelling to us: ‘Good luck!’ ”
When he reached the 28th floor, Kehoe said, he heard an enormous explosion. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was the south tower collapsing. The radio squawked and the lieutenant ordered his men to descend to the lobby.
It took less than two minutes to run down the 28 floors, Kehoe recalled, because most people were already out of the stairwell. The six firefighters spent the next half hour helping to evacuate people from the lobby.
Suddenly the north tower began to shudder and tremble, Kehoe said. The firefighters were ordered to evacuate. As they ran outside, Kehoe and several other firefighters were almost hit by office workers falling from the tower’s top floors.
Roughly 30 seconds later, Kehoe said, the tower came down.
He ran to West Street, searching desperately for a pay phone to call the firehouse. He wanted to find out how many firefighters were trapped and where they were last seen. And he had to check on his wife, a radiologist’s assistant who worked just seven blocks from the twin towers.
He found a working phone and reached the firehouse dispatcher. As Kehoe was being directed to rescue locations, the dispatcher suddenly told him that Edra had just run into the station, searching for news of her husband.
Edra got on the line. She and Mike reassured each other that neither was hurt.
Since then, their lives have been in upheaval. People who saw the photograph have called the firehouse to ask about Kehoe. Others have dropped by, asking to meet him and shake his hand. His home phone rings and rings--reporters, strangers, friends.
There was one painful interlude, when a TV station broadcast Kehoe’s stairwell photo and reported him missing. That sent a wave of panic through Kehoe’s family and friends, who feared he had been hurt or killed during the search and rescue effort.
Kehoe seems overwhelmed by the entire ordeal. He is not particularly comfortable talking about himself and worries that the photo is deflecting attention from missing firefighters and the effort to find them.
“He doesn’t want any attention,” said his boss, Fire Lt. Jimmy Rallis. “He’s beat. He needs time to get things together.”
Kehoe’s good friend, fellow Engine 28 firefighter Kevin Murray--who also survived the north tower collapse--said Kehoe knows that a photograph doesn’t make anybody a hero. “He says the guys under the rubble are the heroes,” Murray said.
But the photo is inescapable. “Millions of people must have seen that picture, it seems like, from all the phone calls and people coming by here,” Murray said.
At the firehouse, the only photos are of Engine 28’s missing firefighters. Also hung on a firehouse wall is a bent manila folder, a homemade receptacle for contributions to a fund for families of missing and dead firefighters.
“Do me a favor,” Kehoe said to a reporter. “Put the fund in the newspaper.”
It is difficult to tell a man whose photo has been around the world that the Uniformed Firefighters Assn. Widows and Children’s Fund at 204 E. 23rd St., New York, N.Y., 10010, won’t get into print.