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Q and A: Reflections on the Loss of a Brother and Firefighter

“I’ll catch you back at work,” is what Bob Kelly said to his brother Tommy before 9/11.

Bob Kelly, 53, said he remembers Sept. 11, 2001 "pretty good."

But upon talking about the day 10 years ago, when the former New York City firefighter found himself at Ground Zero and lost his younger brother Tommy there, it's clear he hasn't forgotten much. Tommy, lived in Riverhead full-time, and was one of seven members of Engine 219, Ladder 105 on Dean St. (which also makes runs in Park Slope) to lose their lives in the World Trade Center attacks.

Kelly recently sat down with Patch about his thoughts on the upcoming 10-year anniversary of 9/11.

How clearly do you remember everything from that day?

I remember it pretty good. I was coming into work for a day tour, for the morning. I heard about it on the AM radio that there was an apparent plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. I got into the station and saw right away it was going to be a bad day. Even if it was an accident, a bad fire—you’re thinking civilian fatalities no doubt. We were in kitchen of firehouse watching it on TV. And within a few minutes we all pretty much came to the conclusion that it wasn’t an accident. You could see by amount of fire—you could see from the volume of fire that it was a pretty major incident.

So we got ready for the tour and shortly after that I said, ‘Let me give my brother a call and see how he’s doing.’ Because I knew he was working that night and into that day. And working in Park Slope, where he worked, I was pretty sure they would be responding and getting over there pretty soon. So I called the fire house—and he had already left. I kind of wanted to tell him be careful and just take it easy out there. So I never really got to talk to him about it.

Do you remember the last thing you said to him before that?

We were on the beach. “I’ll see ya later,” you know? “Take it easy.” It was Labor Day weekend, we were having a good time. Tommy lived two doors down. On the beach, enjoying the end of the summer together, you know. Pretty much, “I’ll catch you back at work.”

What was like for you in months after 9/11?

I was detached. I spent pretty much the whole time down there working while the site was open doing recovery work. I actually became part of the counseling unit, was doing peer work with the guys down there also. We had a really good support system – the fire department did, thank God. They were able to get a grasp on the right away.

It definitely consumes a big part of your life. It was like the main focus of what we did every day for seven, eight months. It was a long time, you know. And I was literally down there 5 out of 7 days a week if you add it up.

How did you find out Tommy had died?

Well we went to site, we responded, and shortly after the second tower had come down, we got in. That was horrible. But we worked that day, and in the chaos you tried to find—I was looking for his company. The guys from my company, we were saying, ‘Let me see if we can at least find those guys.’ And, uh, no avail, no avail.

Sometime late in the day we finally found some guy from his engine company—that they were there. So where was 105? They said, ‘They were in the towers. We’re not sure.’ That was late in the day. So that was the first bit of information we could find to confirm that they were in the towers. OK, did they get out? We don’t know. So we dug and worked.

We came to the realization that they were dead probably within 72 hours or so afterwards. I mean, you held out hope maybe they were in a void. Guys were trapped. We all kind of had that in the back of our heads down there working that they were going to be able to find somebody. You know, after the first few hours there was very few recoveries made of anybody.

I found out afterwards, probably a week or so afterwards, we were able to confirm that his company was in the south lobby of the south tower—in the lobby. So they pretty much had the entire building come down on them. There was guys I know that survived that had seen his company and they may have been 60 yards away when they felt the tower start to come down. So they turned and they made it. They got hit with crap and stuff and knocked over and one guy got hit really bad. It was just a matter of where you were.

It sounds like it was trying to solve a mystery.

It was. That’s what it was. Trying to put it together, that took a period of time just to get GPS people in there and just to get logistics of who was working where, who was where. Because it was a chaotic scene. Fires usually always are—usually like organized chaos, you know. And this was tenfold.


A version of this story originally ran on on Long Island


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