Ten Years Later: How 9/11 Made me a Dad

6 years ago

*Today's blog is by Keith Murphy, a retired NYC Firefighter who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. He tells the story of how that day changed the trajectory of his life forever.  

 "Hey Joanne. Do you want to know how we got Ruby?”

 “Sure I do!” replied Joanne.

 This is how the conversation between my oldest daughter Gretchen and her bus driver began just after she started Kindergarten last year.

 “My daddy used to be a fireman but he got hurt when two buildings fell on him.   He was in the ambulance and the ambulance driver told him he couldn’t be a fireman anymore, so he gave him two choices: he could be a doctor or a Daddy. He chose a Daddy! So he kissed Mommy, and that is how we got baby Ruby.”

I’m sure Joanne was quite intrigued to find out how Gretchen’s baby sister came to be but, of course, the story is a little more complicated than that. I wish it were as simple as how it is seen through the eyes of a five-year old girl.

Ten years ago this Sunday— on September 11, 2001—I was a New York City firefighter working in the Morningside Heights area of northern Manhattan. Just after the second plane struck the World Trade Center, my firehouse, Engine Company 47, responded to the attack by heading downtown. Once there, we were assigned to the 44th floor of WTC#2 to assist in evacuation. In a miraculous mix-up a building porter from the adjacent Marriott Hotel accidentally led us into the lobby of WTC#1 and while there, WTC #2 collapsed. I remember that a tremendous roar began, followed by a monstrous wind that lifted me off my feet and smashed me headfirst into the lobby wall. At first I thought my company and I had died together, but as I slowly came to I realized we were still alive.  Because of the calmness and heroism of my Lieutenant, Billy Wall, we were able to escape the lobby, which had become a field of burning debris, and make it out of the tower. Once outside, we found an ambulance at the corner of West and Vesey Streets and started to get medical help. Only a few minutes later I heard the shouts of an EMT saying, “Abandon the ambulance!!” My friend Steve and I, who had also been injured, jumped out of the back of the ambulance and ran as the dust cloud of the second collapsing tower engulfed us. By the grace of God, I had survived the collapse of both towers.

After surviving 9/11, I questioned what God’s big plan for me would be. Surely I did not survive multiple times that day, by mere inches, to not do something big.  Really big. But what would that be?  Would I solve a great mystery or make an incredible discovery? For years I wondered what would become of that big plan and me.

At that time my wife Kim and I were living in Astoria, Queens, had just bought a weekend home in the Hamptons and were traveling often. We had already made the decision that we were not going to have a family, that it was just going to be us and our beagle, Bridget. Or so we thought.

Like many others affected by the events of 9/11, Kim and I carefully reconsidered our lot in life and whether on not to have a family. We decided we would. In July 2005 my daughter Gretchen was born and about a year later the FDNY retired me due to the injuries I had sustained on that fateful day. I was now a stay at home dad. We continued to add to our clan with our son Jack who was born in 2007 and baby Ruby, who turned 1 in July.

Well I didn’t solve any mysteries or invent the iPhone after all, but I have discovered my greater purpose. God’s “big plan?” Dad. 

I had never imagined I would be a Dad, let alone a full-time stay at home father of three. There are the obvious ups and downs, but I am grateful each and every day for how my “big plan” turned out.

About one year after 9/11/01, I gave an interview to The World Trade Center Oral History Project at Columbia University. One of the questions asked was how I would tell my story to my children one day. I was stumped at first. It was such a hypothetical question. I mean, at that point I still didn’t think I was going to have children, let alone three!  My answer was that I would probably wait until they were college-aged before telling them my story.

But now that I actually have children, I’m not sure what I will tell them or even when. There are still some things I have not told my wife, family or friends about that terrible day. 

But as little kids are known to do, they ask questions. Lots of questions.  Questions like, “Daddy, why are you home with us?”  So last year I tried to delicately tell my five year old why I am home and what happened to me in language she could grasp. And as you read at the beginning of this blog, Gretchen sees my story as a choice and a second chance. And I kind of like that. Through her eyes, my story isn’t as scary or sad or terrifying as the real one. It is a story that only a child can understand.

Maybe, just maybe, the story of how I became a stay at home dad will always be a unique one. For the sake of my children. For the sake of us all.

Keith Murphy retired as an 11-year veteran of the FDNY in 2006. Part of his story is scheduled to appear along with those of other survivors in this Sunday’s New York Times. He is a guest blogger on mamasagainstdrama.com, where this piece originally appeared


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