Time to Weep
Finally Comes for Firefighter
by Dennis Hamill
Copyright © October 17, 2001 New York Daily News.
These days even tough guys cry. On a Monday morning in the spring of 1998, Dr. Kerry Kelly, chief medical officer of the FDNY, examined an X-ray of Mike Shepherd's right ankle. There was metal in the ankle from an old break he'd received playing softball. Any metal in the body was forbidden by FDNY regulations.
Shepherd, a $30-an-hour ironworker, had waited on two lists from 1987 to fulfill his life-long dream of being a firefighter. He'd scored 100 on the physical exam and 98 on the written test. As he watched Kelly frown at his X-ray, he asked, "Whaddya think, doc?"
"I think you should try a different profession," Kelly said.
For most people, that would have been the end of a dream. But Shepherd, a two-time Daily News Golden Gloves champion, was no quitter. He also comes out of a proud FDNY family that includes a grandfather and great-grandfather.
So that day in 1998, Shepherd went home, called the surgeon who had put the plate into his right ankle and told him he had to get it out by Friday. Nine weeks later, Shepherd saw one of Kelly's orthopedic surgeons. "I took my new X-ray with the plate out and my boxing jump rope with me," Shepherd says. "I started skipping rope in his office."
He was hired as a probationary firefighter at $32,000 a year.
Firefighter Mike Shepherd, who saved FDNY Dr. Kerry Kelly (r.) at twin towers, was a Golden Glover (below l.). He almost didn't become one of the Bravest when Kelly told him a metal plate used to mend a broken ankle would disqualify him. He had it removed.
By the morning of Sept. 11, ironworking had long become his second job. His first was as a third-year firefighter assigned for 90 days to a detail in Ladder Co. 101 on Richards St. in Red Hook, Brooklyn, on loan from his regular firehouse, Ladder Co. 120 in Brownsville.
But on Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, Mike Shepherd was on vacation from the FDNY and wore his blue Local 361 ironworkers hardhat with the American flag decal. He was busy burning steel and fitting a girder into the basement of Carnegie Hall to earn extra cash.
Brooklyn-born Shepherd knew something about halls and arenas. As an amateur fighter, he'd appeared twice at Madison Square Garden, where in 1991 and 1992 he lived up to the large letter "S" tattoo on his chest as he belted his way to the heavyweight and light-heavyweight Golden Gloves championships, respectively.
"I love ironworking," Shepherd says. "But my dream was always firefighting. So when I heard the second plane hit the Trade Center, I ran out into the streets and thought about my real job. I heard sirens everywhere. I saw a rig...on 58th St., stuck in traffic, and I just ran for it.
"As soon as I got to Ground Zero, I knew from working high iron that those buildings were gonna come down," Shepherd says.
As fate would have it, Shepherd encountered Kelly, who was roaming the carnage with Capt. Hank Cerisoli. Together, they discovered two firefighters in the 6-inch dust. "We put the one who had a missing thumb, a broken leg and contusions on his stomach on a stretcher," Shepherd says of Firefighter Kevin Shea.
The other dazed firefighter, whose face was a sooty, bloody mask, staggered along beside them. In the shelter of a parking garage, Shepherd ripped off his work shirt, soaked it with an in-house fire hose and cleaned up the dazed firefighter, revealing only superficial cuts.
Kelly examined the badly injured Shea, and said he might have internal bleeding that required immediate ice and hospitalization.
Kelly and a bare-chested Shepherd left the injured firefighters with Cerisoli and trudged through a dusty moonscape in search of ice. They were about to enter a dentist's office when Shepherd looked up through the dust. "I told Dr. Kelly that the second tower was about to come down," Shepherd said.
Shepherd grabbed Kelly's hand and pulled her toward the Battery Park City condominium buildings as the second tower collapsed in a deafening rumble.
"My life was saved twice that day," Kelly says. "Once by Capt. Cerisoli when the first tower fell. And then by Mike Shepherd when the second one collapsed. It was so strange. Here was this guy in the smoke and the dust with no shirt with a big letter 'S' tattooed on his chest, a subliminal message that Superman had arrived."
Going to Be Fine
After the smoke dissipated, Kelly returned to the parking garage to attend to Shea. Shepherd searched for ice and helped other firefighters evacuate the residents, one of whom gave Shepherd a fresh shirt.
Meanwhile, Kelly and Cerisoli and another firefighter loaded Shea into an ambulance. He was raced to an emergency room, where it was discovered he had a broken neck.
"He's gong to be fine," Kelly says now.
Shepherd later regrouped with Kelly at the new disaster command post outside St. Paul's Church.
Kelly embraced Shepherd and said, "You saved my life, Mike."
Kelly chuckles now about being saved by the man she once advised to find a new profession. "Boy, am I happy to admit that I was wrong about him," she says. "He was amazing. Mike did a great job down there that day. So did all the firefighters. It was the worst day in our history and our finest day."
In all, Mike Shepherd spent 30 straight hours at Ground Zero, using his ironworking and firefighting skills. He burned steel, searched voids with forcible-entry saws, helped operate a cherry picker and dug for missing comrades.
It Wasn't Enough
Last week, he appeared at the medical office to check on Dr. Kerry Kelly, who had once suggested he find a different line of work.
He'd cheated death three or four times, and countless pals were still missing.
He needed someone to talk to, a professional and a fellow survivor. Kelly again embraced him and said, "You did everything you could, Mike. You were like Superman down there."
"It wasn't enough," he said.
And then tough guy Mike Shepherd firefighter, ironworker, boxing champion broke down and started to weep.
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