20 Years Ago, Cape Cod's Tom Kenney Led a Rescue Mission to Ground Zero. Now the Cape and South Coast Are Remembering 9/11 for a New Generation
On a Tuesday morning 20 years ago, the coordinated terror attacks of Sept. 11 stole the lives of nearly 3,000 people, devastated their families, and set America on a course to its longest war.
As this anniversary dawns, a whole generation is too young to remember that day. But across the Cape region, local people are honoring the victims and rescuers of 9/11.
Thomas Kenney was a Hyannis fire captain.
“My father was a task force leader for the Massachusetts Urban Search and Rescue Team, Mass Task Force 1, which is based in Beverly,” said his daughter, Meaghann Kenney. On the patio outside The West End restaurant in Hyannis, where she works, she recalled him being called to the World Trade Center on September 11.
“Basically, Beverly gets a fax or a phone call from the president activating these teams,” she said. “So as soon as that happened, my Dad — back in the day of a pager, his pager went off. ... You have to be ready to go. So he jumped in his truck, left Town Hall, went home, said goodbye to my mother, and off he went.”
There are many enduring memories and images of that day: airplane passengers making last calls to their loved ones; people falling from the towers; survivors thickly covered in dust. And there are the firefighters who died rushing up the tower stairways against the crush of people trying to escape.
Meaghann Kenney said her father left Massachusetts on a rescue mission.
“The numbers that they were hearing on the news, and through the radio, was that there [were] thousands of people trapped. When they got there, that certainly wasn't the case,” she said.
The towers had already collapsed. His team worked 12-hour days in search and recovery.
Her father was a stoic man and probably told other people more than he told his daughters about what he saw, she said. But there’s one story that sticks in her memory, of her father’s team entering a void in the rubble.
“They said, ‘Oh, is it OK to go in?’ And the engineer would say, ‘No, but go quickly.’ And there was a woman, and she was completely intact, but she was covered — covered — in the inches of the dust that had fallen.”
She looked as if she had just lain down.
“And he was so happy to have that one memory,” Kenney said, “because somebody got their daughter back. Somebody got a whole person back. A lot of people didn't get anything back.”
Of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day, 343 were firefighters — not including those, like Thomas Kenney, who breathed the toxic dust and later died of cancer.
Pieces of steel from the towers have made their way into public memorials around the country, including some here in the Cape region.
On the South Coast, Acushnet Fire Chief Kevin Gallagher remembers going down to Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, almost 10 years after the towers collapsed, to pick up an artifact for his department’s memorial.
“Very early in the morning, we were escorted through this hangar to the back side ... where they had the steel laid out like a loading dock, waiting for folks to come and retrieve it,” he said. “It was one of the most remarkable few hours that I've ever experienced.”
They saw crushed fire trucks and police cruisers.
“There's a bicycle rack that had bikes still covered in dust. ... And you could hear a pin drop,” he said. “It was a very solemn place to be.”
They brought back an I-beam about six feet long.
Gallagher was able to get objects that represent the other sites as well. There’s a piece of concrete from the Pentagon, and a rock provided by the National Park Service from near the last plane crash in Pennsylvania.
A glass marker is etched with a 9/11 timeline and the numbers of people who lost their lives.
“It's lit by LED lights — the marker as well as the memorial. So at night, it just looks absolutely beautiful,” he said.
Several Cape Cod communities also have steel from the World Trade Center.
In Falmouth, Fire Chief Timothy Smith said the twisted steel beam outside the Main Street fire house has become a centerpiece for reflection.
“People come in every single day, when the weather's nice, and they sit at the benches that are here,” he said. “And you know, we're very proud to be able to have this here. We're very honored to have this.”
Firefighters raised money for the memorial, which includes two granite pillars, representing the towers, topped with a bronze fire helmet and bell.
Smith said all are welcome at the town’s 20th anniversary observance.
“We're going to just hold a very brief ceremony at the memorial, and we would ask if anybody's … available, to come down and pay their respects and join us in that moment of silence,” he said.
Ceremonies will be held around the Cape and Coast — and the world — to honor the dead, comfort the living, and teach a new generation about the meaning of 9/11.