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Kelty pushes to rebuild downtown fire company

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When Eugene Kelty, a firefighter for more than 20 years and chairman of Community Board 7, went back to work weeks after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, he returned to the scene of the devastation.

The Whitestone resident resumed his regular firefighting duties on Nov. 3. That night at about 1 a.m. Kelty, 47, was called to a fire in an apartment building in Battery Park City, a block from Ground Zero. As captain of Engine 10, Kelty and his company raced past the giant mounds of debris that once were the Twin Towers, the first fire he had responded to since Sept. 11.

“We just had people coming back,” said Kelty of the apartment complex, where residents were allowed to return only weeks after the terrorist attacks. “And we had to evacuate them again.”

The fire destroyed a man’s apartment, but no one was injured.

Kelty said his company handled the call well.

“You never know how you are going to react,” he said. “You could have apprehension. But to me, I felt comfortable. We got back to our routine.”

While nearly every fireman in the city lost friends and colleagues in the collapse of the World Trade Center, Kelty’s company suffered another blow in the attack. His firehouse, located at 124 Liberty St., directly across from the street from the World Trade Center, was damaged when Tower 2 collapsed.

The firehouse, which lost five of its men on Sept. 11, was home to both Engine 10 and Ladder 10 companies, and was known as 10 House.

The only firehouse damaged during the attacks, it is slated for renovation to be completed by March 2003. While Engine 10 was put back to work on Nov. 3 at another firehouse, Ladder 10 was not immediately reinstated, but that may soon change.

Kelty said it is time for Ladder 10 to have its company back.

“In the beginning, it wasn’t bad,” said Kelty, speaking of the fact that Engine 10 and Ladder 10 have been combined temporarily. “But as we’re moving forward, there’s more people back and there’s no reason not to establish the company.”

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppeta Tuesday announced that Ladder 10 would be re-established within two weeks, The New York Times reported. But Ladder 10 would be housed in a separate house from Engine 10, while many of the men in the companies have been pushing for them to be together, the newspaper said.

“We can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Kelty Wednesday morning after he heard the news.

Kelty, who became chairman of Community Board 7 last year, has worked as a firefighter in three different boroughs. He started in 1979 with Engine 259 in Long Island City, transferring to Ladder 136 in Maspeth in 1981. In 1989, he was promoted to lieutenant of Engine 205 in Brooklyn and in 1996 he came to 10 House as captain of Engine 10.

Dealing with one-story houses in Maspeth, brownstones in Brooklyn Heights and high-rises in Manhattan, Kelty learned the ins and outs of fighting fires in a variety of buildings.

“You use different tactics,” Kelty explained. “Each building has different dangers.”

On Sept. 11, Kelty was off duty in Douglaston when he heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. He rushed to his firehouse along with his brother, Jimmy, who is the chief fire marshal of Manhattan.

As he donned his fire suit, Kelty heard a tremendous boom. The windows of his office blew out, and everything went black.

Tower 2 had just fallen.

“We didn’t know it was a collapse,” said Kelty. “We thought it was another plane hitting.”

With the destruction of Tower 2, Kelty’s goal changed from racing up the stairs of the World Trade Center to rescuing those trapped 1,000 feet up in the sky, to simply making sure everyone got out of his three-story firehouse alive.

Just as everyone had evacuated the firehouse, Tower 1 collapsed.

“You didn’t know,” said Kelty. “All you heard was that sound, and you knew something was coming ... I kept thinking about what they said when Mt. Saint Helens erupted.”

By 10:45 a.m., only half an hour after Tower 1 toppled, Kelty began working to get water to the site, which was still in flames. He struggled to fight the fire until 1:30 a.m.

Kelty’s firehouse was used as a triage station for the next two weeks. But as the rescue effort became a recovery effort, Kelty began to yearn for a sense of normalcy.

“It was like ‘MASH,’” he said, speaking of the 1970s Vietnam era television show and movie. “I had people all over the place, equipment in the corner.”

Now four months later, Kelty said it is critical for normal fire service to return to Downtown Manhattan and for his sister company, Ladder 10, to be reinstated.

Kelty added that without Ladder 10, several schools in the area were not getting proper fire inspections.

He said his company has done a good job in the move to Engine 4’s firehouse on South Street, a house that lost 14 firefighters. But for Kelty, a return to the old firefighting routine that allows his men to function at full tilt, will not be completed until Ladder 10 is restored.

Kelty said he understood that Ladder 10 and Engine 10 would have to wait until their firehouse was renovated before they rejoined one another.

“I realize the problem we have with that,” he said.

But Kelty remained optimistic.

“10 House will come back together,” he said.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

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