An Ending and a Beginning for 9/11 Firefighter
Roll Call – by Emily Heil
For most of his life, this was the suit Ken Haskell donned for work: a pair of tall boots and heavy flame-proof pants and jacket.
It's what he's worn for the hundreds of runs he's made as a member of the New York City Fire Department to car accidents, house fires and water-main leaks. It's what he wore when he responded to a call to lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.
But when the longtime firefighter took on a new job — as an adviser to House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King — he had to wear something more appropriate for Congressional hearings and public ceremonies.
"I came home and told my wife, 'I better buy a few suits,'" Haskell said. "I think, before, I maybe had one or two that I wore to weddings and funerals."
Haskell, who advises the New York Republican on first-responder and homeland security issues, comes to his Congressional job from a path unlike that of the typical aide. The 42-year-old has been a firefighter for 18 years and was a New York City police officer for three years before that.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks ended so many things — buildings down, lives lost, a nation's sense of security vanished — and altered many more. Ken Haskell now sometimes wears a tie.
His job is to animate the abstract, to make real to Congress what for many exists only on paper or in prepared testimony — much like the attacks themselves brought to life a threat once unimaginable.
King recalls meeting Haskell at the funeral of the fireman's brother, Timmy, who died in the North Tower on 9/11. Another of Haskell's brothers, Tommy, died in the South Tower, although his body was never recovered.
"When he did the eulogy at Tim's funeral, he'd never done public speaking before," King said. "He was eloquent, but eloquent in a way that was understated. He was direct, and he had this ability to communicate but not make it about himself."
Impressed, King eventually asked Haskell to join his office as an adviser. Haskell, though, was not immediately convinced the job was for him. After all, he was a firefighter and the son of a firefighter. His world was fires and family and the carpentry business he runs on the side.
He felt comfortable in heavy boots, not wingtips. Politics was something he read about in the papers and talked about with his buddies at the station.
He knew a little about King. The Representative's kids had gone to school with his older siblings, and he knew the Congressman lived in a little house in his hometown of Seaford.
"I was apprehensive, and I wasn't sure what he was looking for in me," Haskell said. "But then I saw how sincere he was about making the right decisions. You know, of all the things I went through since Sept. 11, the most surprising was winding up working for a Congressman. That's just not something I ever aspired to do."
On a recent evening, Haskell sits on the battered green sofa in the firehouse. Part clubhouse, part garage, the firehouse is filled with ghosts of the terrorist attacks, like posters depicting the faces of the fallen firefighters, alongside reminders that life goes on. A baby announcement for the son of one of the men is scrawled on a smudgy dry-erase board. There's a sign-up sheet for the weekend's hockey game.
"I'm not a political guy, and I still don't consider myself a political guy," he said.
Haskell is a physically imposing man, a former high school athlete who spends plenty of time in the firehouse's bare-bones weight room.
He is just back from a fire in Queens, and he smells of sweat and smoke.
He is modest about what he contributes to King's operation. "Pete will tell me, 'I can have a hundred guys show me a graph or a flow chart about how something is going to work, but it wouldn't tell me how it's going to affect the actual people on the ground,'" Haskell said of King. "And I'm willing to do that."
In typical Long Island patois, his "r's" become "ah's"
The job takes him to Washington three or four times a year for meetings or to sit in on hearings. He also represents King at events back in the district. At Eagle Scout ceremonies or memorials, Haskell shakes hands, says a few words and gives the Congressman's regards.
Often, he acts as a liaison between King's office and the fire and police departments.
King says that although he has good relationships with the department brass, Haskell always knows who to connect him to on a particular issue.
To hear them speak of one another, Haskell makes King out to be an average Joe, while King describes Haskell as something of a statesman.
"He's just a blue-collar guy," Haskell said of King. "He's just as comfortable sitting around, having beers in someone's backyard as he is in Washington."
One senses, too, that King simply likes to have a guy like Haskell around. He's a real-life specimen of the first responders whom elected officials all too often move about like so many toy soldiers and a tangible reminder of what so many of his constituents lost on 9/11.
Haskell's memories of the days following the attacks are both blurry and sharp.
The smell is one detail he will never forget. Most fires, he said, smell of smoke and burning wood. But the air surrounding the inferno at ground zero was a different beast. Maybe it was the aviation fuel, or the pulverized cement that hung in the air, but it was unlike any other fire he'd known. And for days, he breathed it in.
He shuttled between the site — where he spent hours putting out fires, picking up body parts and searching for survivors — and his mother's home on Long Island — where there was an ongoing wake for his missing brothers.
Four days after the blast, they found Timmy. Tommy's body was never found.
Ten years later, Haskell is still trying to pull something living out of the wreckage. He has his own private rituals to mark each anniversary of 9/11. He and his oldest son visit ground zero and walk around the site where the planes hit. Wherever they stop, Haskell can recall a memory of something that happened on that spot.
He has found that the best way to remember what happened that day is to rededicate himself to his first career — firefighting. And if that means putting on a coat and tie and taking on another role, then so be it.
Since the attacks, he notes, New York's firefighters have gotten unprecedented equipment and training to ready themselves for what, until 2001, seemed like a distant threat.
"Everything we've gotten since 9/11 — the hazmat training, the chemical training — has been in some way through the federal government," Haskell says. "And so this is a small way of helping to be part of that."