HOLMDEL, NJ — Sitting comfortably in his Holmdel home, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 can feel like memories from another lifetime for Joe McKay.
And other times it feels like it all happened yesterday.
McKay, 52, a husband and father of two, is a retired New York City firefighter who responded to Ground Zero on the day of the attacks. As far as he knows, he is the only Ground Zero first responder who currently lives in Holmdel, although there are several Ground Zero "vets" who reside in nearby Middletown. And Monmouth County overall knows 9/11 heartbreak well, as the county in total lost 147 residents that day, with Middletown alone losing 37.
It was always McKay's boyhood dream to become a firefighter.
"I guess as a kid growing up on Staten Island, I would just see these big, strong guys at our local firehouse and they were always so nice and friendly," he said. "It just seemed like an exciting job. When I got the call, I was ecstatic. It was a dream job come true for me."
McKay was assigned to Engine Co. 201 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He was 29 years old; it was 1998. He had no idea what his job would entail in three short years.
"I was actually off on Sept. 11. Every year we hold a golf tournament to raise money for guys in the firehouse and even though I can't play golf, I went. My buddy at the firehouse, Shotzy, said he would work that day for me."
He paused and collected himself. John A. Schardt, 34, or "Shotzy" as he was known, was part of the first wave of firefighters who responded when the towers were hit. Schardt was last seen smiling as he ran into Tower 2, according to his obituary. He was eager and excited to do his job saving people, witnesses said. He never re-emerged.
"We were on the Silver Lake golf course in Staten Island signing people in when someone came out of the clubhouse and said a plane just hit the World Trade Center. Obviously, we all went inside and turned on the TV. I called the firehouse and at the time they said it was just a second-alarm. I joked to my buddy on the phone (Shotzy), 'Well, it's not going to be a second alarm for much longer.'"
Not even ten minutes later, he watched — like millions of Americans — in disbelief as the second plane flew into the second tower.
"Up until that point, we had been speculating how a pilot on a crystal clear day could hit one of the tallest buildings in the world," he said. "But when we saw the second plane hit, we knew the country was under attack. By that time we were all under 'total recall.' This is a term for any police officer, firefighter or EMT to get to the closest station house, sign in and get your gear on. And get to the Trade Center."
McKay swung by his home on the way into Brooklyn. His wife was panicked; she had just gotten a call from a close friend whose husband worked in the towers.
"I saw fear in her eyes that day like I've never seen before. I told her to take the kids out of school and get somewhere safe."
On their way into the city, the first tower collapsed. The Battery Tunnel was also shut down because officials were worried it was the next to be bombed. McKay and other first responders made it to the Brooklyn Bridge, where hundreds of firefighters from the outer boroughs had gathered. Across the bridge, Lower Manhattan was a cloud of smoke and ash. Once the second tower collapsed, the city stopped letting private cars onto the island, so the men commandeered a New York City MTA bus driving by.
"We said, 'You gotta take us to the World Trade Center.' The driver was great; he replied, 'Whatever you guys need.' We pulled the bus in front of a firehouse and loaded it up with gear, oxygen and 25 firefighters," he said. "As soon as we got into Manhattan, everyone started coughing. He drove us until he said he couldn't drive anymore. It was too hard to see."
McKay and the others got out and headed south on foot.
"You couldn't see but 15 feet in front of you. We made it City Hall park, which had been set up as a makeshift command center. The dust was really heavy. And it was a lot of confusion. The chiefs knew at that time we had lost a lot of guys and they were nervous about sending more guys in."
Of course, what nobody knew at that time was that the chief of the entire New York City fire department, Peter Ganci, had just been killed when the North Tower collapsed. Minutes before his death, Ganci directed everyone else in the area, including then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to evacuate when it became apparent the second tower would fall. But he stayed behind, saying, according to Newsday, "I'm not leaving my men."
McKay said they had little direction, but decided to head south and make their way around "The Pile."
What did they see?
"It was hell on earth. It didn't seem real; we were all in shock. All the buildings around the World Trade Center were burning from top to bottom. The Deutsche Bank building had a huge hole in it," he recalled. He remembered looking up at the Millennium Hotel and seeing it swaying. He feared it would collapse next. "You could feel the heat from half a block a way. Every building was burning. And there was just this sense of disbelief that these two towers actually fell."
Tragically, they could also see body parts sticking out from the rubble
Training kicked in: Pick a fire and put it out. A fire boat that had been retired was pulling water from the Hudson River, so the men ran a very long hose all the way up to the 17th floor of the Marriott hotel, located one block away from the fallen towers. They used it to put out several fires in burning buildings around the Marriott.
Once that was done, they crawled into the rubble.
"Just digging into the void and crawling into holes, looking for survivors," he said. "Unfortunately, no, I never found anyone."
With that much dust in the air, was anyone wearing masks?
"Not on the first day, and not even in those first few weeks. They would give us little paper disposable masks, but those would last about 10 minutes," McKay recalled. "All that stuff burning: Asbestos, fiberglass and concrete. And that's just the stuff we know about. There was this strange, purple-colored smoke coming out of one section of The Pile. And one guy, this veteran firefighter, said stay away from that. He said he's never seen that color smoke in a 40-year career fighting fires."
Not everyone had a cell phone back then, but McKay did. He kept getting phone calls from fellow firefighter's wives, wanting to know where they were.
"And I got a call from my wife's best friend. Her husband was not a firefighter, but he worked in the first tower. Walter Matuza. He was on a high floor above the impact zone. He sent her a text message after the first plane hit. He said he was in a stairwell with a pregnant woman and some others, and couldn't get down because there was too much smoke to make it down. He said he loved her. And then Tower 1 collapsed."
He also got a call from Shotzy's wife, wanting to know if he had seen or heard from him.
"I think I knew at that point, in the back of my head, that John was probably on the list," he said. "I just said it's very confusing down here; there hasn't been a list established yet. I just said there's guys all over, they could be anywhere. It wasn't easy lying to people."
McKay stayed at Ground Zero for two days, until his captain ordered him to go home.
"That was probably one of the most difficult things for me. Leaving The Pile — it hit me hard. I didn't want to leave. I felt like I was leaving people behind."
He got aboard an NYPD Harbor Boat and was shuttled back to Brooklyn.
"For those whole two days I was numb. Then we got back to Brooklyn and we're walking up Fourth Avenue back to the station house, all dirty and covered in dust. Traffic stopped. People were hanging out their windows and fourth- and fifth-floor fire escapes. People started clapping for us. It was like a ticker-tape parade. That's when I lost it. Up until that point I had my game face on. But I just started crying. I just remember thinking, 'Why are you clapping for me? I didn't save anybody."
At that time, McKay's sinuses were so inflamed from smoke and soot that his eyes were nearly swollen shut. He was treated at St. Vincent's Hospital in Staten Island and the next day was back at Ground Zero. He would remain there every day for the next two weeks, removing rubble, supplying water and looking for survivors. There were none to be found.
Six months later, the headaches begin
In the spring of 2002, McKay was back at work, on shift at the Brooklyn fire house. He fell asleep, but woke up 30 minutes later with a stabbing pain behind his eye.
"It was unlike pain I've ever experienced before. I thought I was having a brain aneurysm. I ran to the officer in charge and said I said I have to go to the ER right now."
It took several more specialist appointments to get the official diagnosis: McKay had developed cluster headaches, which are defined by a series of relatively short but extremely painful attacks every day for weeks or months at a time. Cluster headaches are rare and are more likely to affect men than women. They also usually strike in the moments or hours after someone has fallen asleep. The latest research actually shows they are an autoimmune disease, where the body attacks its own healthy tissue.
"If you say you get headaches, it's not the same. It's not a headache at all," said McKay. "It actually feels like getting stabbed in the eye with an ice pick. And it goes in a cycle. When they're coming, I get an attack within an hour of falling asleep. In the cluster community, we call them 'The Beast,' and you are literally scared to fall asleep at night."
By 2010, the illness had gotten so bad that McKay actually had to retire from the FDNY. These days, his symptoms are under control and he could actually say he's in remission right now. But he did have a flare-up earlier this year.
And are his cluster headaches caused by his time at Ground Zero?
"That's the million-dollar question I would love to know. I would give my left arm to know that, and I say that because I'm a lefty. Cluster headaches may be hereditary, so I may have been genetically predisposed to get it. But did the toxins down there make it worse?"
McKay has since met two other Ground Zero first responders who also have cluster headaches. Those men don't know if it is linked, either. Ironically, cluster headaches are not recognized as an approved illness under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, an act McKay helped lobby and advocate for to get passed. He's gone to D.C. several times now, and met with fellow Monmouth County resident Jon Stewart to help secure funding for 9/11 victims.
According to the CDC, nearly 21 percent of those caught in 9/11's disaster exposure now experience severe headaches. Oxygen eases the symptoms when a cluster headache strikes, so McKay now always has oxygen tanks with him 24/7. He brought his oxygen tanks with him when he walked the halls of Congress to petition for continued funding for the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund. He walked alongside fellow Ground Zero firefighters who have cancer or use wheelchairs.
"All of us that were there that day — we're one big lab experiment, basically. We're learning something new every day about what we were exposed to," he said. "Just this week, they came out with a study that says you are 40 percent more likely to have cardiac issues if you were a 9/11 first responder."
Of the 343 firefighters who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, McKay knew knew 26 of them personally and four were from his company alone, Engine Co. 201 in Sunset Park.
He never wants to stop telling their story.
"Even knowing what we know now — all the health risks — I can tell you we all would have rushed in and done it again," he said.