Star Volleyball Player Touched By Father's 9/11 Heroics

NY Post - October 09, 2009


So many things ran through Jeff Johnson's mind on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The veteran firefighter had been dispatched with Engine Co. 74 to the Marriott adjacent to the World Trade Center towers. He was there, inside the hotel trying to evacuate guests when the north and then the south tower collapsed.

On the third floor, lucky to be alive yet still completely enclosed with fallen debris, Johnson let his mind wander to his youngest child.

"For some reason," he said, "I thought a lot about Kerri."

Kerri was 9 years old at the time. She was the baby of the family, Johnson and his wife Rosemarie's only daughter. One of his greatest fears was that he would not be able to watch her grow up.

The Bronx native has gotten that chance, though. Kerri is all grown up now - 6 feet tall, actually. She's 17 years old, a senior at Preston HS and one of New York City's elite girls volleyball players.

And her father is a hero.

Johnson waited a long time before he told Kerri what happened that morning. It was different telling Rosemarie or his two boys: Brian, 25, who is now a firefighter himself, and Sean, 21, who is close to entering into the family business, too. But one day, two years ago, Johnson sat Kerri down and detailed the entire, incredible experience.

Johnson and his company were sent up to the 21st floor gymnasium area looking for anyone left after both towers above were hit by jets in the worst terrorist attack on American soil. That's when the south tower came down, taking a giant chunk out of the Marriott. Johnson's close friend and colleague, Ruben Correa, who was standing just feet away, was lost in the debris.

"We never found him," Johnson said solemnly.

Johnson and his company then made its way, through the debris, downstairs, picking up three civilians in the process. Parts of the Marriott were still standing, but a V-shaped swath was taken out of the middle. Luckily, they were on the very south side at the time.

The men made it down to the third floor, but could go no further. Debris was blocking every possible exit. Then the north tower came down. Johnson alertly told the men to run toward a pillar he had noticed in a banquet area on the floor, one that he hoped would support them in the inevitable collapse.

The idea worked, but Pat Carey, the lone remaining firefighter with Johnson, went missing. He was later found and hospitalized, but now Johnson was alone, trapped with three civilians, debris all around them.

Looking for a way out, Johnson stumbled upon window drapes. He pulled them down from the walls, tied one end around the column and dangled the other end around a small opening where the men could see daylight. One by one, they all slid down the drapes to safety.

Johnson was later given The Post's first Liberty Medal for his bravery that day. One of the men he saved, a Washington, D.C. lawyer named Frank Razzano, got in touch with him a year later after seeing his picture online. Razzano invited Johnson and Rosemarie down to his daughter's wedding.

"He told me, ‘I wouldn't be walking my daughter down the aisle if it wasn't for you,'" Johnson recalled.

Kerri was blown away by the story. She knew her father was at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, but didn't know the scope of the situation. Before their talk, every time he discussed that morning with Roe or Brian or Sean, Kerri was told to go into her room or down into the basement.

"Complete shock," Kerri said, describing her reaction. "I didn't know my dad was capable of doing that. I was so proud of him."

In many ways, her life has changed much like his did eight years ago. Johnson, who retired in 2007 after 28 years in the FDNY, has tried to spend as much time with Kerri as possible and vice versa. He is a fixture at all of her volleyball matches and has driven her to schools like Delaware and Rhode Island - two of her hopeful destinations - for camps. Last year, they went on a skiing and snowboarding trip, just the two of them, and Johnson made Kerri go hand gliding.

"I value all the time we have together," Kerri said.

Johnson sees a lot of himself in Kerri, especially the competitiveness. Kerri turned her ankle late in a match last week against rival St. Catharine Academy and refused to come out. Kerri recalls her father trying to set for her in a highlight video to send out to colleges and being "so frustrated" when he couldn't.

This much time together could be running short. Kerri wants to go away to school to study nursing and play volleyball. She's a natural athlete, much like her father. Kerri, who is also a lifeguard, started out playing basketball, but realized two years ago that volleyball was the sport that was going to get her ahead.

She stars at middle and outside hitter for Preston and the Creole Big Apple club with her excellent vertical leap, long arms and powerful swing. She's the best player in The Bronx and one of just a few other seniors in the city with a chance to earn a Division I scholarship.

Johnson is fine with Kerri leaving the family's home in Silver Beach, though. He got what he wanted, what he wasn't sure he would ever get to see after that fall morning eight years ago. His little girl is all grown up.

"I'm just lucky to be alive," he said.