Ground Zero on September 12th: Interview with Kevin Madigan, 9/11 Firefighter & Mercer Owner Operator
When you get talking to people in the trucking industry, you run into some compelling stories. Kevin Madigan is an owner operator who started with Mercer back in February 2020. As a volunteer with one of the Long Island Volunteer Fire Departments, Madigan went to ground zero on September 12th and returned daily for 2 weeks. The lessons of 9/11 have made us better prepared for disasters in the future, but the lingering effects of the event continue to impact lives.
September 11, 2001
Twenty years ago, Kevin Madigan was a long way from his current life as an owner operator. He worked for a towing company and was in the middle of repossessing a car when he noticed everyone watching the news. A plane had hit the first tower. Around that time, his beeper went off. They needed a rear driver (or tiller driver) for the back end of the ladder truck. “Never even mentioned that I have some guy’s car on the hook,” he said, “I ended up dropping that car and flew back to the towing company.” The ten-minute drive from the towing company to the firehouse stretched into two and a half hours because of gridlock. He ended up with a police escort to the firehouse, driving on the grass because even the emergency lanes were blocked. Along the way, Madigan was surprised to see the Federation of Black Cowboys riding on horseback toward Brooklyn, “then I realized how serious it was.
For the most part, the Long Island Volunteer Fire Departments were tasked with covering Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn, and other parts of the FDNY territory on 9/11. Long Island volunteers responded to routine emergency calls while NYC firemen focused on Manhattan and ground zero. Partially because of a longstanding rivalry between FDNY and Long Island volunteers, true cooperation was difficult. The Long Island trucks weren’t even compatible with NYC hydrants. “Our threads don’t match New York City threads,” Madigan said, “Thank God there wasn’t a real fire on 9/11 because we wouldn’t have been able to do anything.” Long Island crews responded to a number of emergency calls, but even getting through the blocked streets was a challenge.
Madigan’s station initially sent one truck to Far Rockaway in Queens. “We had a truck that they wanted, which was a light pumper and foam truck.” Madigan spent the night of 9/11 waiting for a call requesting the Long Island station ladder truck (as he drove the rear of the truck). Initially, there wasn’t room for the ladder truck, roughly the length of a tractor trailer. Even when streets are clear, the rear driver is needed to get around city corners. During the night, the volunteer crew that had been deployed to Queens was moved to ground zero.
September 12, 2001 At 6 am, Madigan and other volunteers rode in Chiefs’ cars to relieve the crew that had been moved to ground zero. The expressway and other streets were crowded, largely with empty cars. A lot of drivers had abandoned their cars and walked home. “We were able to get through with the Chiefs’ cars,” Madigan said, “As soon as we got thru the tunnel, it was so darn quiet. As you came out of the other end of the tunnel…it was like an explosion of dust. I’m not sure exactly how far the tunnel is from ground zero, but that dust covered the whole city. God only knows what they did with all the ashes.”
“We were driving in dust like it was snow, that’s how thick and deep it was. It was thick. When we parked— you ever get that little frog in your throat? That’s what my mom used to call it—I’ll never forget it because we parked right in front of an airplane wheel. No one else picked up on it, except for me and the driver because I was up front with him. We just sat there staring at it, like this is freaking real. This is so real. Oh my God.”
FDNY never ended up calling for the ladder truck. After both towers collapsed, it wasn’t needed. Madigan and his crew mostly did physical labor. They climbed up onto the pile and joined the bucket brigade. “I never knew that was real,” Madigan said, “I always thought it was just a fire department hoax.” The crews stood in a line and passed along bucket after bucket of debris. The same “bucket brigade” technique would be used in 2021 after the collapse of the Surfside condo in Florida. Madigan worked all day and left the next morning, returning to ground zero later that day.
The 13th was a little harder for Madigan. Instead of joining the bucket brigade, he was tasked with following a cadaver dog. “I walked around with a body bag so they could fill it with parts. At the end of the day, it wasn’t very full, but I then had to take it to the morgue.” The temporary morgue was a series of refrigerated trailers, the same setup the city would later use for COVID deaths. They also collected and bagged personal items, including “anything that could belong to someone or could have DNA on it, like rings, pens, glasses…” Madigan continued to return, day after day, for two weeks. “After those first few days, it was just a job, like going to work. The hardest thing at that point was we knew we wouldn’t see anybody anymore.”
Funerals and Memorials
“There are people who lived through a hell of a lot more than me,” Madigan said, “They were there when it happened…I was only there after. They actually saw that thing come down.” He still lost friends, attending around 27 fire department funerals. One friend, Jonathan Ielpi, actually had two funerals because they didn’t find his body until December. “I grew up with him. He lived in our town, but he was a chief for a NYC fire department.” Another childhood friend worked for a bank in one of the towers.
Madigan’s chief worked for OEM, New York State’s Office of Emergency Management, like a smaller version of FEMA. Chief Ray Plakstis Jr.’s role in OEM was part of the reason Madigan’s crew went to ground zero so quickly. There was no shortage of volunteers, and a lot of firemen and crews from other districts and states were turned away. Chief Plakstis died of cancer about a month before Madigan’s father, the result of his prolonged exposure at ground zero.
“We just did the 9/11 memorial for the 20th anniversary, there were 6 in our town on Long Island.” Madigan said, “I did the memorial in Long Island but not in Manhattan. It’s hard for me to go down there.” Since 2001, he has returned to ground zero twice. He made a delivery there before the memorial was built, when it was just a hole in the ground. “There’s a guy talking to me there and I was in my own world, just staring. He says, ‘Yo!’ He actually tapped me on my shoulder, and it scared me. I don’t know where I was or what country I was in. I was just lost in my head, remembering everything that happened there.” The second time he visited was with his girlfriend, but it was at night and the memorial was closed.
Madigan’s girlfriend is from Virginia, and she makes fun of his New York accent. They’re engaged and he’s in the process of moving to Virginia. All around New York and Long Island, the cost of living keeps getting higher, and it’s getting harder to run fire departments with all volunteers. Madigan stopped responding to fires four years ago, around the same time he got his CDL and started driving.
Among the “lessons learned” from 9/11, Long Island Volunteer Firefighters and FDNY (as well as other emergency systems around the country) are now better prepared with equipment, training, and protocols to cooperate in response to large-scale disasters.
The Journey to Owner Operator Before buying his own truck, Kevin Madigan worked for a breacher company. “I’d go to a place, they would rent a truck, then I’d do yard work there.” He would move material for the same company, but there would be different events and locations “concerts… tenants… Miami Open, etc.” In fact, Madigan was working the Miami Open in 2019 when his father died. More than a dozen years after the towers fell, his father was yet another casualty of 9/11.
Kevin’s father, Thomas Madigan, had been an oil mechanic and volunteer fireman for 55 years with Great Neck Alert Engine Company #1. On September 11th, he drove a bus back and forth between their Long Island firehouse and Manhattan, carrying NYC first responders and other workers. Thanks to the bus, first responders didn’t need to use their personal vehicles and risk bringing carloads of toxic dust back home. With its pulverized concrete, glass, asbestos, and other airborne construction debris, the dust had devastating long term effects on survivors. “My dad, he died of pretty much every cancer you could have,” Madigan said, “He didn’t smoke, but he ended up with lung cancer, he didn’t drink but he ended up with liver cancer. Everyone said he had arthritis—ends up it was bone cancer. So those are the three major side effects of 9/11 at this end.
At the time of this Mercer Minute interview, Madigan was on his way to NY to pull an antique fire truck restored by his father, a 1947 American LaFrance Pumper. “My mom called that dad’s mistress because he spent so much time with it,” Madigan laughed. “I never knew a lady so jealous of a truck! Volunteering was his life.” Like his father, Kevin did his fair share of volunteering, starting as a 12-year-old and spending four years in the Juniors.
Kevin Madigan’s own truck recently won a Long Island truck show, but it’s a bit more practical than his dad’s restoration project. Madigan saw a business opportunity, and it happened to be a very good time to become an owner operator. “I found myself a truck that I really wasn’t looking for, but it was a good deal,” he said. “My friend works for Mercer, and he’s been telling me to do this for probably 10 years, to go and get my own truck and work with Mercer.” So, he finally did.
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