By Kit R. Roane
he Barrow's Pub was jumping. Janis Joplin wailed on the jukebox, her song joined by the sounds of raucous pool shooters and workingmen slapping backs at the bar. But Capt. Eugene Kelty wasn't feeling very festiveand sometimes he wonders whether he ever will again.
It's been nearly a year, but Kelty and his firefighters at Engine Company 10 are still struggling to regain their footing. For Kelty, 48, the images of September 11 float easily to the surface: the sight of the smoldering towers, the crash as they fell, nearly shaking his firehouse to the ground, the miles of soot-covered wreckage. "There was so little you could do," recounted Kelty, Engine 10's company commander, biting hard on his hand as if to relieve his pain. "There was debris everywhere, firetrucks were smashed, and cars were on fire. But there wasn't even any water to put them out."
In his mind still ring the names of his deadGregg Atlas, Paul Pansini, Jeff Olsen, Stephen Harrell, and Sean Tallon. Five of the 343 firefighters lost that horrible day were from his firehouse at 124 Liberty Street, just across from the World Trade Center. As a 23-year veteran, Kelty knew many of the others as well and still has trouble remembering not to call out for them when their trucks pass by on a job. "You expect to see them, but they're all gone. Things will never be the same," said Kelty, his voice still hoarse from the pulverized debris and glass he inhaled over months at ground zero.
Kelty says he tries to keep focused on other things; he now spends long hours working on his community board in Whitestone, Queens. But the towers are always in the back of his mind. There is no peace. He and many of his men still have trouble sleeping; they wake sweating in the middle of the night. Two of his firefighters remain on light duty because they are too emotionally "scarred," Kelty says, adding that he "can't do anything for them."
Kelty tries to keep in the fold the families of the firefighters who died, letting them know he is only a phone call away. He hopes to get them together with the whole battalion for a remembrance ceremony on the one-year anniversary, and he tries to touch base monthly. But what do you say? One family lost their only son; Kelty says their house is now a tableau of grief, the parents sitting on the sofa, still leafing through the old pictures, showing him off. "He was the light of their life," said Kelty. "You want to call to show that you care, but you don't want to bring up any of the bad memories again. It all remains very hard."
For Kelty, never married, the firehouse had been his home and the firefighters his family. The terrorists took both away from him, leaving his firehouse unusable and his family forever fractured. He and his remaining menalong with a few new firefightershave been relocated to Engine 7, Ladder 1 quarters at 100 Duane Street nearby. It will be April before they're allowed back in their own firehouse, which was so contaminated by debris that it now must be gutted and renovated. Even then, a large quadrant of his firefighting territory will remain "a huge blank hole," he says.
Many people would walk away from all this if they could. But Kelty, like many other firefighters who are eligible to retire, now finds himself unable to do so. There is too much that needs doing. A deep bench of talent and experience was wiped out on September 11. The new "probys" have to be helped on their feet. And Kelty wants to open the door once more at Engine 10's firehouse before he calls it quits. "I feel like we have to rebuild and put things right, even if it takes two or three more years to do it," he said. "I need to help put the foundation back in."