September 11, Eleven Years Later: A Tribute to My Uncle and the FDNY

Sean Donnelly’s uncle, Kevin Donnelly, was a lieutenant in the FDNY’s Ladder 3 Company and was killed in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001, after climbing 60 floors trying to save everyone he could.  Eleven years after that tragic day, Sean reflects on his uncle’s heroism and sacrifice:

Lt. Kevin W. Donnelly was among the Ladder Company 3 firefighters killed while trying to rescue others from the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001.

The question, “Where were you on 9/11?” is echoing throughout America this week.  Well, I can describe every minute of that day, and the following week as well.

That’s because my uncle, Lieutenant Kevin W. Donnelly of Ladder Company 3 of the Fire Department of New York, was on shift for 24 hours before his shift ended at 9:00 a.m. the morning of September 11, 2001.  However, the first hijacked plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center between shifts.  My uncle, along with many in the FDNY who were off-duty, decided that he couldn’t miss the fire of the year; there were too many who needed rescuing to go home and rest.

Kevin, or KD as we all called him, caught a taxi with his gear and made it up to the 60th floor of the North Tower before heading back down the stairs after the South Tower collapsed.  We have heard from survivors that Kevin was able to make it all the way down to the 15th floor before stopping to help more people who needed to be rescued.  The last words we know he spoke were to a firefighter in Ladder Company 5, who told him “Hey, we’ve got orders to get out!”  Kevin replied, “Go ahead, I’ll catch up as soon as I finish helping these women.”  Kevin – as well as 11 other firemen from Ladder 3, the most of any company in the FDNY – never made it out.

That right there describes the kind of man my uncle was.  It is no wonder why he received three department medals and 21 citations for acts of bravery.  (There are only ten department medals given out a year and many firemen never receive one.  Kevin had three.)  His fellow firemen told us he was just a couple months short of achieving “captain.”  KD was truly a great man, and he chose the ultimate sacrifice.  As I reflect on the evil events of eleven years ago that took my uncle’s life, I don’t always cry because I miss him. I cry because of what I can’t miss, for all the memories we could’ve had.  I cry for all the stories I hear from my family, because I wish I had more stories like that.  I was 12 years old that fateful day – the youngest of four boys – so I have significantly fewer memories of KD than the rest of my family.

Sean’s father, Ed Donnelly, says his brother, Kevin, “was an unbelievably tough guy … pound-for-pound, he was the toughest human being alive but the nicest human being alive.”

The days following September 11th were very hard for my family.  We constantly called the hotline, relatives, and friends to get updates.  We tried to hold each other together as best we could. I hoped he was still alive because I knew that if anyone could survive, Uncle Kevin could.  It took about a week before I finally realized he wasn’t coming back.  I couldn’t imagine that somewhere beneath the piles of steel was my uncle.

At that time, my family and I could only hope that we got some of him back.

In October 2001, we held a memorial service for Kevin.  Before the memorial we were fortunate enough to go to “Ground Zero” in New York City.  Not behind the fences or walls of missing persons, but we were actually there at the site itself. I bent over and picked up a rock, a small representation of my uncle to me.  It was all I had.  At the memorial, I held it tight in my hand the whole time.

The next couple of months were rough, especially for my dad, who was KD’s brother.  For Christmas that year, my brother Eddy made memory calendars with pictures of various events that involved each person with KD so we could always remember.  One of the most special things I have received in memory of KD, though, is the bracelet I wear almost every day.

A Memorial Service was held for Lt. Donnelly on Oct. 6, 2001. His body was found on March 12, 2002 and he was buried at the Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury on March 18, 2002, the day after St. Patty’s Day, his favorite holiday.

On March 11, 2002, it was my mom’s birthday — the 6-month anniversary of 9/11.  The next morning, my dad received a phone call from New York and came right upstairs to wake me up.

“KD is home,” he said as he looked into my eyes.  When I heard these words, my eyes filled with tears of both sadness and joy.  I was happy his body was found intact but it was at that moment I realized my uncle was truly gone.

When we had the funeral in late March, I brought my rock and rubbed it against his casket. Over 5,000 people showed up to the funeral to give their respect to my uncle.  When we got to the cemetery, the mournful sound of the bagpipes pierced our hearts.  I kept saying, “Good-bye KD” in my head during the burial and I finally said one good-bye, out loud, with my family.

On the one-year anniversary of September 11, we let the local fire department fly the flag from KD’s casket.  My school classmates and friends came to the firehouse to support our family by singing “God Bless America.”  The following years, we decided to do less, because we didn’t want to experience the pain again.  Some 9/11 anniversaries, I’ve simply given my dad a call.  That was all that either of us needed, to realize we were thinking about Kevin.  Last year, on the 10th anniversary, my family went to New York.  We spent time with Ladder 3 and with other family members of the 12 firemen lost from that company.  My uncle’s fire truck was on display at the memorial site as well and has a permanent place at the museum.

When Sean was a student at Georgia Tech, he helped organize an American flag memorial display which consisted of 2,977 flags, one to represent each life that was taken during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “The flags are a poignant gesture, and my uncle would be proud to see that students set them up on campus every year,” said Sean.

Eleven years later, I still remember my mom bringing me lunch on September 11, 2001 and telling me that Uncle Kevin was one of the 343 missing firemen.  My uncle was a hero on 9/11, but he was a hero to my family and I long before that terrible day, long before his medals.  KD was always a hero to us and he still is.  I’m proud to wear my FDNY shirt and I’m proud that I can say that Kevin Donnelly was my uncle.  I have carried his prayer card with a picture of him in my wallet for eleven years. I’ve worn my bracelet whenever I can, I’ve have had the same FDNY shirt since then, too.  So in a way, he’s still been with me.

It is a privilege to be able to share my story – Kevin’s story – and I’m grateful for all those who faithfully recognize the anniversary of September 11th year after year.  To the children who make cards for their local firehouses, the college students who set up American flag displays on their campuses, and others who take the time to engage in thoughtful and patriotic gestures, you would all be my uncle Kevin’s heroes.  We should never forget that day, because it is too easy to forget as the years go on.  We should not forget that there are also 2,976 other stories to be told.

 Sean Donnelly is from Oak Brook, Illinois. 

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