The iconic image of firefighter Mike Kehoe heading up the North Tower of the World Trade Center as workers fled summed up the bravery of all the 9/11 crews on that terrible day.
Twenty years have nearly passed since he was photographed on the front page of the Mirror. Many people were shocked to learn that somehow Mike survived.
But in total, 343 of his colleagues lost their lives following the terrorist attacks.
Several friends have also since died as a result of cancer they contracted from working in the ash of both towers.
Many more retired or found safer jobs, but not Mike, 53, who is still saving lives in New York all these years later.
Asked why he still wanted to be a fireman after all he has been through he said simply: “I just love it.”
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But the firefighter has never been back to Ground Zero since those weeks after September 11, 2001.
And he will not go back on Saturday for the 20th anniversary memorial.
But Mike will, for the first time since he left 17 years ago, make an emotional return to the firehouse in Manhattan where he was based on that day.
He will take his wife EJ to remember and pay respects to his close friends who were killed in the attacks by al-Qaeda.
They will also take their son Jack, 15, and 17-year-old twins Ryan and Mike who are both planning on following their dad’s footsteps to become firefighters.
Mike said quietly: “I’ve never been back to Ground Zero since my time there in the weeks after 9/11 and I won’t go on Saturday.
“But I have decided to go back to my old firehouse on Saturday morning.
“It will be the first time I’ll have gone back since I left. EJ and the boys will be with me. I just felt it was the right time.”
It was at this firehouse – where Engine 28 and Ladder 11 are based – I first met him before dawn on September 14, 2001.
I walked into the firehouse and asked about him to be told by a colleague: “Mike made it – he’s upstairs asleep.”
He talks fondly about the camaraderie and bonds built in that firehouse and the others he has worked in.
Mike recalled getting the original call: “We got on to the engine and went down the east side down the tip of Manhattan, and to the World Trade Center. We could see one of the towers was smoking. But at that stage we still weren’t sure why.
“We went inside the lobby of the tower. It was already a mess with the elevators and glass blown out.
“We found the stairwell and started making our way up the building. There were tons of people coming down, but they were pretty calm.”
Daily Mirror/Ian Vogler)
Mike can remember as he climbed the stairs people wishing them well.
He said: “Our job was to get up to the floor where the plane hit to reach people there. That’s what we were determined to do. As we were going up people kept saying, ‘good luck’, ‘lots of luck’. But I must admit that even at that stage, I was frightened. Then over the radio [my boss] Roy said everybody evacuate the building now.
“We all turned around immediately. It was frightening. We managed to get into the lobby, it was like Beirut, there was rubble everywhere.”
All six of Mike’s Engine 28 company – Roy Chelsen, Brian Becker, Frank Compagna, Bob Salvador, Jim Ippollito and Mike – managed to escape.
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But their six Ladder 11 colleagues – Mike Quilty, Matt Rogan, Rich Kelly, Edward Day, John Heffernan and Mike Cammarata – died.
But his boss Roy Chelsen has also since passed away. Relatives of the 51-year-old hero, who died in January 2011, said his five-year battle with multiple myeloma was linked to 9/11 and 2,500 contaminants found by health experts. Mike said: “Roy was the guy who saved my life that day. He was the one who told us to get out.
“He had a form of blood cancer. They said it was 9/11-related. There are still firefighters dying from cancer and other related diseases after all these years. It’s very sad. We do still have regular medical check-ups.”
Daily Mirror/Ian Vogler)
He now works in Rescue 5 – one of only five specialist expert units in New York City.
“We attend every fire in Staten Island and part of Brooklyn,” he said. “We’re more trained and experienced.
“We work on specialist rescue perhaps in confined spaces, a trench collapse or a building collapse.
“I’m trained as a scuba diver as well. If there’s a child missing in the sea, for example, then we are called in.”
The year after 9/11 Mike and EJ were invited to London to attend the Pride of Britain awards.
“We’ve some very special memories,” said Mike. “We were very honoured to be invited to represent the New York Fire Department. I sat with Sting and met Helen Mirren, Victoria Beckham, Joan Collins and Danni Minogue.”
The Kehoes are an incredibly close family and his twin boys and EJ chip in during the interview as they watch a live stream of Jack playing a baseball game away in New Jersey.
Ryan and Mike have started college studying nursing and physical therapy.
But they plan to apply to join the fire service as soon as they can.
Mike smiled: “I’m very proud of all my boys and if they want to be firefighters that would be great.”
In recent days the boys have watched a documentary with never-seen-before footage of their dad on the ground floor of the World Trade Center. It was taken seconds before he headed up one of the Twin Towers.
He will make his rare return to Manhattan on Saturday. And when the bells sound at 8.46am – the precise moment a hijacked plane hit the first North Tower – Mike and his family will pay their respects to his friends who were tragically killed 20 years ago.
While Mike has never returned to Ground Zero, EJ and the twins have been to visit the memorial museum on the site. As they walked around they saw a picture of Mike on the wall.
EJ smiled, recalling: “The boys started to take a photo but one of the museum staff told them they couldn’t.
“They were too polite to mention that it was their own dad who was pictured on the wall!”