September 11, 2001 hit hard for the Kelly family of Reeves Park in Riverhead.
Brothers Tom and Bob were both New York City firefighters at the time, Tom in Brooklyn and Bob in Queens, while their other brother, Jim, was a detective at the New York Police Department’s 17th Precinct in Manhattan.
Their father, Emmet, a retired member of the FDNY, and mother, Sue, were in New Jersey visiting relatives, and were unable to get back because the bridges were closed, while their sister, Jean Marie Farrell, was teaching a pre-K class in Florida when she found out about the world Trade Center attacks, said Bob Kelly. He said her situation was similar to that of President George W. Bush, who was also speaking to schoolchildren in Florida when he was told about the attacks.
When Bob Kelly reported to work at his firehouse in Queens that morning, the twin towers had already been struck, and he called over to his brother Tom’s firehouse in Brooklyn to tell him to be safe.
“They said, ‘Bobby, you missed him. They already went out,” he recalled.
“So I never really got to see him again.”
Tom Kelly and other members of the Ladder Company 105 in Brooklyn were killed responding to the World Trace Center fire, and he was never found.
Firefighters from another company that survived the collapse said they last saw Ladder Company 105 in the lobby of the elevator banks of the south tower. That company was about 100 yards behind Ladder Company 105 when the tower collapsed, Bob Kelly said.
Jim Kelly was working as an elections officer at a mayoral primary in a midtown polling place on Sept. 11. He had heard about the twin towers fires, but was unable to receive radio transmission and had to stay at the polling place.
Eventually the election was cancelled and all the police officers assigned to polling places were reassigned to the World Trace Center, he said.
“That’s when I heard that my brother was working,” he said. “The towers had collapsed by then.”
Jim Kelly said he called a neighbor of Tom’s in Riverhead to see if his car was in the driveway, as Tom commuted from Riverhead to Brooklyn to work. The car was not in the driveway, he said.
“We hoped for the best,” Jim Kelly said. “I knew that if anyone could survive this, it would be Tom. He was very healthy and in great shape.”
Tom Kelly once rode a bike from Boston to New York to raise money for AIDS research, Jim said.
Both Jim and Bob have since retired.
The Kellys plan to attend a ceremony at ground zero and also at Ladder Company 105 headquarters in Brooklyn Sunday morning, and then drive back to Riverhead for a vigil in Reeves Park, Bob Kelly said.
“I think of Tommy all the time and the friends I lost,” Bob Kelly said. He estimates he knew about 50 people who died on Sept. 11. His fire company in Queens ended up responding to the scene that day after the towers collapsed.
“Fighting fires is usually like organized chaos, but when we got to the site on September 11, even though buildings were still on fire and there was smoke everywhere, you could hear a pin drop. There wasn’t a sound to be heard,” Bob Kelly recalled. “The guys who survived the collapse were still pretty much in shock, walking around. It was like something out of a movie. It was a feeling I had never experienced in my life. Just dead silence.”
Bob Kelly was on the search and rescue detail at ground zero for weeks afterward, although he said it quickly became apparent they weren’t going to be finding a lot of people alive in the rubble.
He recalled the communication problem that immediately followed the attack: His son, Sean, then a freshman at Iona College, was initially told his father had died.
“It took two days for him to find out that I was okay,” Bob Kelly said.
Jim Kelly said he recalled the city being deluged with calls from people wanting to help and having officers from the Miami police department covering his precinct.
“It was like you’re in a fog,” he recalled. “You’re dealing with the enormity of this whole thing happening in the city and yet you’re personally involved. It was a very weird time.”