‘I’m no hero. I was just doing my job’
MIKE Kehoe clears a lump from his throat and flashes a brilliant, defiant smile.
"I haven’t been driven crazy by 11 September," he says, "If the same thing happened again, I’d go back and do exactly what I did before."
Mr Kehoe, 34, was immortalised as a hero after being pictured climbing the smoky staircase of the World Trade Centre’s north tower minutes before it collapsed.
He was presumed dead after going to rescue office workers trapped in the wreckage .
In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman, Mr Kehoe said: "I’ve been very lucky, really. I haven’t had any nightmares and don’t feel particularly haunted by what I saw. I feel lucky to be alive and back in the arms of my wife and family and I now feel a lot more comfortable talking about it."
The famous image of Mr Kehoe, taken by a tourist, John Labriola, is held up as one of the most enduring symbols of the United States’ resilience in the war on terror.
For millions of people, the image summed up everything about the bravery of New York’s firefighters. But Mr Kehoe insists he was simply one of thousands who were doing their job.
"The only reason it’s been printed so much is because it was the only one that came out in focus," he says. "Loads were taken but, for whatever reason, my shot came out the clearest."
Mr Kehoe was recently hurt when he smashed down the door of an evacuated building, breaking a bone in his forearm and damaging his right wrist. He said: "It’ll be nice to go back to work this week. I’ve missed the support of all the guys at the firehouse and I’ve also missed my work. For me, there’s no job better in the world than being a fireman. You help people and make a lot of good friends.
"It’s so important not to let the terrorists win. I try not to think about politics, I just get on with my job and don’t give way to negative feelings."
He recalls: "I remember that day pretty clearly. I dropped off my wife, EJ, at work early in the morning and went down to my old firehouse at about 7:15am. We were chatting among one another and enjoying a normal day when all of a sudden there was a terrific crash - a smashing sound. It was the first plane hitting the World Trade Centre at 8:46am. We didn’t know what had happened until an operator informed us over the communication system.
"There was no time for emotion. Six of us jumped straight into a truck and no more than a few minutes later we were there at the scene.
"None of us talked as we made our way to the site. We were all pretty shocked by what had happened, but the atmosphere was also one of total professionalism. We were determined to do what we could and knew the situation was serious.
"At that time, I figured a plane must have accidentally hit the building. I didn’t really want to think anything else.
"I remember seeing body parts all over the street. All kinds of parts, limbs and bones. Jumpers were falling out of the building, piling up everywhere and making this God-awful noise when they landed. I saw them explode all over the ground, it was horrific. Then the six of us who had travelled together made our way up the stairwell to look for survivors.
"The atmosphere was calm once inside the building. Civilians were evacuating in a pretty orderly fashion. Around the 28th floor, I ran into the guy who took my picture, John Labriola. We’ve stayed in touch since. He dropped by the firehouse a few days later to introduce himself and give me some more pictures.
"We heard the second plane hitting the south tower but didn’t realise what the hell was happening. I thought it was the sound of a subway or something like that. Then, once I’d climbed a few more floors, the order came from our bosses to get out. So we did."
Mr Kehoe was lucky. Unlike thousands of victims trapped above, he escaped just before the 1,300ft building fell .
"I came very close to death," he admits . "Imagine what my poor wife would have done if she’d had to live with that as my last picture."
On the street, Mr Kehoe managed to stagger to a payphone and convey the message to EJ, 33, that he was alive. "I was so relieved," she says. "I’d heard what had happened on the radio and was worried sick he’d never make it out of the tower. I figured he’d be somewhere in the thick of the action."
Incredibly, the pair, who have been married almost five years and had dated for 15, have yet to discuss in depth what he went through that terrible day.
"He hasn’t wanted to tell me the details and I respect that," says EJ, an office manager . "Sure, I’m curious to know what my husband went through but he wants to protect me and I won’t push him if he doesn’t want it. I hear bits and pieces when he’s talking to other people, so have a pretty good idea what happened."
Mr Kehoe says he has also turned down offers of therapy. "I went a couple of times but it didn’t really help me much. What good can it do? I don’t think I’ll need it. EJ was supportive, but the firehouse was more of a support. Probably until this day she’s still waiting for me to break down and let it all out. But when you go to the firehouse it’s like a big therapy session, you’re joking around the whole time. She doesn’t need to know about all the gory things I saw on that day..." his voice trails off. "Yeah, I remember what I saw. It’s not that I wake up thinking about it, but I can remember everything vaguely at least about what happened."
Is he aware of the impact his picture has had on the world? "Sure I am, now," he says, choosing his words carefully. "There was a time when I was mystified by it all, but eventually I began to feel proud of being an ambassador for New York’s firefighters. I think that’s partly thanks to you guys."
Last February, Mr Kehoe was honoured at an awards ceremony in Britain celebrating bravery. "It was unbelievable, I was mobbed wherever I went," he says of the trip, on which his wife joined him. " We would like very much to say thank you to the British people."
Mr Kehoe has repeatedly turned down requests to give his opinion about his country’s war on terror, preferring instead to let politicians do the talking.
"I’m just one firefighter who went up that stairwell," he says. "It really upsets me when people make out I’m the only hero."
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: East