Glory In The Glare

On Sept. 11, this photo of Mike Kehoe was taken as he rushed up Tower One, earning him instant acclaim. But being called a hero is not the same as feeling like one

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And E.J. couldn't do a thing to bring him back to life. Nearly every night of their four-year marriage, they had walked down to the Sedutto ice cream parlor on the corner. He always ordered mint chocolate chip in a cup; she got sugar-free, fat-free frozen yogurt. Mike had suddenly lost his taste for ice cream. "I'm just trying to be a little healthier," he would tell her whenever she suggested taking up the old routine. At a late-September reunion of her family, he seemed slightly more animated talking with her father and male cousins, but when E.J. came over to set down a bowl of potato chips, the men promptly shut up. The two had known each other since she was 13; still he had yet to tell her a single detail of the most terrifying day of his life.

"I know what my wife can take and what she can't, and this isn't something I can really talk to her about," Mike told me one afternoon while discussing Sept. 11 over coffee at his sister's house. "The firehouse is my therapy." Unfortunately, he couldn't take his usual refuge there. The attention heaped on him was beginning to grate on some of his colleagues. They joked about his newfound celebrity, dubbing him "Worldwide," but privately grimaced that he had become the poster child for the attacks. What little press Mike did came to no good: his fans sent checks, but they were made out to the wrong place--the department's general charity fund, not the special nonprofit the firehouse had for its widows.

While writing this article I received an anonymous call on my answering machine with the message that TIME was profiling the wrong person. "That picture doesn't say it all," the voice said. "The real hero is not in that picture." Things got so tense at the firehouse that Lieut. Jimmy Rallis, one of the higher-ranking officers, began pulling the men aside. "I told them they should stop giving him crap because these photographs have a long history. The guy in the Baby Jessica picture killed himself," says Rallis, referring to the fireman in Midland, Texas, who pulled a baby from a well in 1987 and committed suicide eight years later. "Mike didn't ask for his picture to be taken, and he doesn't need any more pressure because of it. It scares me."

On the day after Thanksgiving, Mike woke up and told E.J. he couldn't face going to work. He had often scoffed with his co-workers about the emotional help the department had been offering, but on this day he scheduled an appointment with a counselor to request a medical leave. His best friend Rob drove him to the session. Mike answered the counselor's questions--Are you having trouble eating? No. Sleeping? Sometimes--but he didn't volunteer any information. Still, he left feeling a little lighter and carrying explicit instructions to take a vacation with his wife.

On the 78th day after the attacks, Mike broached the topic of Sept. 11 with E.J. He was still on medical leave, but they drove into Manhattan for a dinner for the families of Ladder 11. The two were sitting in a bar in Alphabet City when Mike suddenly leaned in. "I just don't know what I'm supposed to be feeling about all of this," he told her. "I think I'm supposed to be feeling guilty, but I actually am thankful to be alive." And then he abruptly stopped talking.

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