Former NYFD firefighter reflects on 9/11, loss of two brothers

Brothers Timothy and Thomas Haskell, Seaford High School alumni, at a parade in March 2001. Both died that Sept. 11.
Brothers Timothy and Thomas Haskell, Seaford High School alumni, at a parade in March 2001. Both died that Sept. 11.
Courtesy Haskell Family

For most Americans, including Seaford resident Ken Haskell, Sept. 11, 2001, began like any normal day.

Haskell, a second-generation New York City firefighter who was assigned to the FDNY’s Engine 309, part of Ladder 159 in southern Brooklyn, was off that day. The then 32-year-old planned to tackle some home renovations.

While at a local store buying tile, Haskell caught a glimpse of a TV screen, and found out that American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. “I realized that was no accident,” he recalled. “I immediately dropped what I was doing and ran to my firehouse.”

Though the Long Island Expressway was partially shut down, Haskell said he showed his identification and was able to get through. After he arrived at the firehouse, he and other firefighters who were off-duty that day commandeered a bus from a nearby transportation hub and headed to Lower Manhattan.

While they were on the Manhattan Bridge, the north tower, like the south tower before it, collapsed. Haskell turned to a fellow firefighter on the bus and said, “We’re all going to know somebody who died today.”

Ken, Timothy, Thomas Sr. and Thomas Haskell at Ken and Timothy’s FDNY graduation in October 1993.
Ken, Timothy, Thomas Sr. and Thomas Haskell at Ken and Timothy’s FDNY graduation in October 1993.

At the time, he had no idea whether his two brothers, Timothy and Thomas Haskell, also New York City firefighters, were working that day. Timmy, of FDNY Squad 18, had been relieved from duty but still responded. Timmy had lived in Lower Manhattan at the time, so, Ken said, he assumed he’d be at the scene. Tommy was the captain of Ladder 132. Ken didn’t discover that they had both responded until about 1 a.m. on Sept. 12.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day, Haskell said — but walking into what was then known only as the pile was like walking into a nuclear winter. It was completely dark and mostly silent. “All you really heard was the intensity and roar of the flames, or things crackling, secondary collapses,” he said.

His group got to work in the southeast corner of the site. “The first thought was rescue and recovery,” he said, “but it was apparent there wasn’t a lot of that to be done. Anybody there was gone.” The group also tried to salvage equipment, but the trucks at the site were destroyed and hydrants had been knocked out.

Haskell tried to find fire trucks from his brothers’ stations. In the coming weeks, he would try to focus his efforts in areas where he thought his brothers might have been.

One of the moments when he felt the angriest, he said, was on the third or fourth day he worked at ground zero. He recovered the intact body of a young woman in a void where a building facade had collapsed. Just like hundreds of others that day, he said, she probably never knew what hit her.

“I remember thinking how lucky her family is to get her back,” he said. “Under the circumstances, as horrible as that sounds, that was a good thing to have.”

Since Timmy had been high in the north tower when it collapsed, first responders managed to recover his body in the shell of the building on the Saturday after the attacks. A service was held for him at St. William the Abbot Catholic Church in Seaford. Tom’s body was never found.

As if he wasn’t dealing with enough, Haskell said his then newborn son, Ryan, born in June 2001, was in and out of the hospital. “It’s all a blur,” he said. “I really don’t know how we got through it.”

Both Timmy and Tom were Seaford High School graduates, two of the five alumni who died in the attacks. Tom graduated in 1982, and Timmy in 1985. A memorial site is set up for Tom at Breslau Cemetery in Lindenhurst, parallel to where Timmy is buried. They are survived by Ken, another brother, Kevin, older sister Dawn and their mother, Maureen. Their father, Thomas Sr., died over two decades ago.

“Ken is such a special person,” Tom Condon, chairman of the Seaford 9/11 Memorial Committee, said. Condon taught Ken, Timmy and Tom and worked alongside Maureen at Seaford High. “He has grown into such an outstanding man, and he is such a role model for so many people.”

Haskell, who retired from the FDNY in 2016 and is now the president of the 9/11 Memorial Committee, planned to visit his brothers’ graves on Saturday with his wife, Genene, and their two sons, Kenny and Ryan. They will also attend a candlelight vigil at Seaford High.

“I appreciate the day because I still seem to run into someone who knew my brothers,” he said. “I always seem to hear a story I’ve never heard before, and it’s nice to hear those things.”

Haskell still has days when he struggles with the loss of his brothers. But he stays positive. “Not every day is sunny and bright,” he said. “But I refuse to dwell on the negative, because if you do that, then the terrorists win. It’s as simple as that. I refuse to let them win.”