In the winter of 2000, Mike Kehoe was called to a first-alarm fire at an apartment in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y. No one was home, but he scaled the roof to break a skylight and release the explosive gases building within. A photo of Mike perched atop a row of Brooklyn brownstones appeared in the Daily News the following morning. The guys at the firehouse joked for a few minutes that he was almost famous. His mother cut out the photo and filed it away in her scrapbook.
Mike didn't notice the second time he was photographed on the job. It happened around the 20th floor in a crowded stairwell of the burning 1 World Trade Center. A Port Authority contractor had grabbed his digital camera on his rush down from the 71st floor and released the shutter just as Mike, a fireman with Engine 28, was climbing to the scene of the blaze.
On the Friday after that Tuesday, the photo hit the Daily News. Mike's picture was the one record of the sweaty stampede out of the towers, the one frozen frame to give the horrors on the inside a face and a name. And suddenly everyone wanted a piece of him. There were 40 messages a day from reporters; well wishers sent checks, whiskey, prayers, cigars and a bald-eagle calendar. One particularly aggressive fan, "Judy C. from New Hampshire," wrote almost daily on stationery with pink hearts and drove all the way to New York City from Manchester just to see him in the flesh. Mike's father taped the photograph to his refrigerator next to a laminated postcard of Jesus. Mike even heard that British Prime Minister Tony Blair held it up and said, "This man is a hero."
The photograph fast became part of the redemptive fairy tale spun by Americans to make some rough sense of Sept. 11. The good guys like Mike saved the day, the evil ones were blotted out, and we all bought F.D.N.Y. HEROES caps and pinned red-white-and-blue ribbons to our lapels to celebrate the victory. But to those who lived that story and now rub up against its shards every day, resolution is nothing more than a mass-marketed myth. Their reality is raw and unending. Fire fighters and police brawl at ground zero. Tales of divorces spawned by Sept. 11 circle around the fire department. Widows squabble with one another over money, and this month one took her own life.
For Mike, myth and reality collide at nearly every juncture. People who see his compact, 5-ft. 7 1/2-in. frame in person insist he must be shorter than the beefy man in the photo. The guys at work grumble that all the attention is going to him instead of the six men missing from his firehouse. His wife E.J. demands to know why they have only had a 30-second conversation about Sept. 11. Everyone wants to know how many people the superhero pulled from the towers. The answer never changes: "I saved one person that day, and that was me, and it was by running for my life."
On the morning of Sept. 11, Mike and E.J. drove into Manhattan together from their Staten Island home after Mike picked up bagels and cream cheese for the firehouse. "You're buying the guys breakfast and you don't even buy it for your own wife," she teased in the car. Shortly after 7 a.m., he dropped her off at the downtown Manhattan radiologist whom she assists. She gave Mike a quick peck on the cheek.