Retired fireman recalls rescues
[/i]Kevin Shea, hurt in the 1993 WTC bombing, returned after the Sept. 11 attacks despite fears[/i]

DONNA WRIGHT
Herald Staff Writer

Lt. Kevin Shea of the New York Fire Department doesn't feel like a hero, even though he wears medals on his chest.

The retired firefighter told a hushed crowd at Thursday's Tribute to Heroes luncheon that he was just a common man doing his job.

Shea was the keynote speaker at the 9-11 memorial event at Bradenton City Auditorium.

He shared his memories of the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, when he fell more than 45 feet into the bomb crater when a floor of the damaged building collapsed. His injuries were so extensive, he was forced to retire from New York's famed Rescue 1.

But when the two planes brought down the twin towers on Sept. 11, Shea was one of the first to volunteer to help with rescue efforts.

This time, many of the victims below the rubble were his lifelong friends and colleagues.

Today, Shea still struggles to tell the stories that are too raw to remember.

He didn't give a speech. He just talked, his stories segueing from one event to the next, painting a tapestry of what it was like to be at Ground Zero.

"If I said to you, I am not a hero, you might call me humble," said Shea. "But you don't understand. It's a fact. . . . What happened to me, no matter how uncomfortable I was or afraid I was, I had the guy next to me. It's always about the guy next to you."

His observation brought nods from Manatee's best and finest, who filled the room in full-dress uniforms, representing every local branch of law enforcement and public safety.

They smiled when Shea described the close bond that those who face danger every day know is the source of their strength and courage.

"When you have that kind of support around you, you can do anything," Shea said.

His voice still trembles when he recalls what he saw.

"You have heard how hard it was, but it was so overwhelming," Shea said.

As a seasoned firefighter, Shea described how in the past he would rely on those around him for strength when he began to falter.

But this time, Shea said, the magnitude of the disaster was just too great.

"At first we didn't have enough people to support us," Shea said. "Then I started to see people with badges I had never seen before, badges from all over the country."

On the fourth day after the attack, Shea found himself walking down a slope that lead to a crater exactly where he had been injured in the 1993 blast.

"I felt the fear climbing up my back," he said. "I got out the first time, but I thought I might not get out this time around."

The fear was so crippling, he had to leave.

"I didn't go out the way I went in," he said. "I climbed up a rock pile instead, which was probably far more dangerous."

Then he saw a figure clad in fatigues coming toward him. It was a soldier carrying a Rescue 1 helmet.

"I think I may have found some of your buddies," the soldier said.

Despite his fear, they climbed together to the top of the rock heap where Shea discovered the bodies of two firefighters caught in the rubble.

As he worked through the smoke and ruins, Shea said he kept encountering old friends who were helping with the rescue effort.

"It was like some morbid reunion," Shea said. "Everybody was there."

He met a fellow retired firefighter who was looking for his son who was among the Rescue 1 firefighters caught inside.

Then Shea met another retired buddy whose son had become a firefighter and was now lost in the rubble.

On the rubble heap he introduced the two fathers who both lost sons when the towers fell.

"When I look back, I tell you I am surprised we didn't lose any more guys," Shea said. "It was always the support of the other guys that got you through it, but this time they were in the rubble.

". . . I can't forget. It's still too raw. I think the brain has a circuit breaker and that's how I get through. I would like to think about it as our Pearl Harbor Day.

"I truly feel like I have thousands and thousands of brothers and sisters," he said, referring to the close ranks of firefighters everywhere. "I am not afraid to fail because I know you will not judge me. With support like that, I can do anything."


Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at 745-7049 or at dwright@bradentonherald.com.