After 20 years, 9/11 is still indelible for Leo Kennedy

After 20 years, 9/11 is still indelible for Leo Kennedy

One More Thing

Shortly after the devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Leo Kennedy of Greenville went to New York City to help.

A member of the Cranston Fire Department from which he later retired as a deputy chief, Kennedy, now 62, was part of the Rhode Island Disaster Medical Action Team. The federal government activated the select unit and sent it to the site of the twin towers catastrophe.

The team was charged with setting up a series of hospitals to treat victims of the attack. Leo had expected they would be pulling bodies from the rubble and helping survivors. However, few people inside the towers lived after the buildings’ horrific collapse.

So, his group ended up caring for volunteers. They included firefighters, like themselves, as well as workers who were combing through the debris and, in the process, were hurt or became ill.

He and his fellow crew also recovered equipment that belonged to the New York City Fire Department and returned it to them, visiting stations and forming bonds with the NYC firefighters.

The treacherous attack using two airliners hijacked by the perpetrators, killed 2,606 people in and around the skyscrapers, as well as 441 first responders, 343 firefighters among them. It was a time like no other in American history. Twenty years later Leo carries with him the memories and after-effects of his experiences at the scene.

“I don’t reflect on it every day anymore,” he says, confessing that in the past there were times when he did. He also comments that walking through the dust and debris he witnessed some grim sights which were too disturbing to relate. He rarely talks about it if he can help it.

“I’m still not too keen on it,” he says candidly, adding “some people can talk about it, others can’t. There are just things I can’t talk about. They haven’t been on TV or published. The people I might talk to are those who have seen it too, and not that many have. Some things I will never talk about to anybody.”

He does describe the kaleidoscope of visual images that come to mind when he looks back on the scene.

“Thousands of photos began appearing on walls, chain link fences, and the sides of generators and the like,” he notes. They were pleas for information. Soon, they were plastered anyplace that family members and next of kin thought that recovery workers might see them.

“They would say things like: This person is missing. If you have seen him, his name is Bob so and so. Please contact his brother Sam at such and such an address.” Grimacing, Leo explains, “there were what seemed like thousands of them, everywhere.”

The Rhode Island DMAT unit was set up on Liberty Street and moved about the financial district that encompasses what came to be called “ground zero.” The DMAT teams saw a wide swath of sobering destruction and wreckage. Working eight-hour shifts they absorbed the enormity of the assault.

In their off time they visited firehouses and met New York City Fire Department members.

Leo recalls that somewhere he saw a display of drawings by elementary school children from a district in New Jersey. They depicted rescue equipment, people fleeing, police helping citizens and such. Somewhere he found the name of the school and the teacher who had sent the drawings. He called her and told her how impressed he and his mates were. The teacher was moved, he says. She had thought perhaps no one would see them.

He also discovered that there was a near insatiable desire for American flags. Remembering that he had a case of them back in Rhode Island, he called home and had them sent to the unit’s quarters. He passed them all out to grateful recipients on the streets.

When their assignment was done, the team returned to their daily life. They brought with them a new perspective. Leo says that he threw his boots away, conscious that they carried particles of toxic grit and such that he had walked through for two weeks.

“We were well aware of what we had been exposed to, but what are you going to do? We were not going to say we’re not going to do (our job).”

One legacy is that he must get an annual physical to check for possible consequences of the exposure. The federal government mandates that New York City must pay for it.

In addition to the outward signs of the experience, he confides that he carried a changed outlook home to Rhode Island.

“Right after I got back, I decided to finish some things in my life,” he discloses, noting “I went back to PC (Providence College) and finished my degree in fire science and made some other changes. You want to keep going and not let things get stagnant.”

There is clearly a thread running through his life and his work that connects to the tragic events of 9-11. Every once in a while, it surfaces.

He has been back to lower Manhattan twice since his service there, and he has visited the 9-11 Memorial and Museum. “It’s extremely well set up,” he says.

Leo has considered going to the 20th anniversary observances for 9-11, but he has decided he will probably go two weeks later, which would coincide with when he came back from his original time there.

His career has been fulfilling. Starting in the Smithfield Fire Department as a call firefighter, he embarked on a path that led to emergency medical technician certification and eventually resulted in becoming chief of emergency medical services for the Cranston Fire Department as well as deputy chief of the entire department.

He is modest about his achievements, which include serving for 10 years as chair of the state ambulance service advisory board, a body that sets standards statewide for EMTs and paramedics. Leo has served in many roles in the community throughout his working life.

He credits a family commitment to public service for his dedication. His dad and his grandfather, both also named Leo, were firefighters.

“When you’re called you go,” he observes.

(Contact me at smithpublarry@gmail.com)