'Good-looking' son relished his work as NYC firefighter

By Peggy Lowe and Lynn Bartels, News Staff Writers

KEN CARYL RANCH -- Gloria Dowdell was used to getting calls out of the blue from her son, who usually began with "Hello, Ma. This is Kevin, the good-looking one."
But a call in April 1995 surprised even her.

"Hello, Ma!" Kevin yelled into the phone. "I'm two states over."

Kevin Dowdell, a New York City fireman, was in Oklahoma City, working with a federal team at the bombing site.

"He said, 'We're helping people,' " his mother remembered Tuesday.

That's exactly what Kevin was doing on Sept. 11, this time in his hometown. This time, Lt. Kevin Dowdell of Rescue Company 4, Queens, didn't call home.

Dowdell, 46, is one of some 300 firefighters still missing after responding to the World Trade Center terrorist attack.

The Dowdells, a large Irish-American family in Jefferson County, spent part of Christmas Day remembering their son and brother and uncle who lived his life with a rambunctious relish.

Kevin, the middle child of seven, was the one who organized a family trip to Nova Scotia. He was the one who learned to play bass drum so he could play with his sons' band. He was the one who couldn't just organize a nice dinner out in New York; it had to be the best salad at this restaurant, the best appetizer at that one, dessert at another.

"We called it the eat-your-way-through-Brooklyn tour," said his oldest sister, Gloria McAvoy, 53.

Kevin knew he was going to be a fireman since he was 4 years old. When his family moved from Long Island, N.Y., to Colorado in 1972, he reminded his mother of his dream, saying he planned to move back to become a New York City fireman.

He did return to New York and became a decorated firefighter whom Mayor Rudy Giuliani knew by name from all the awards ceremonies. Kevin married his childhood sweetheart, RoseEllen, and they had two sons, Patrick, 18, and James, 16.

There, among the brotherhood of firefighters, Kevin found his home, McAvoy said. He specialized in the toughest rescues, learning to scuba dive and crawl into the most confined spaces.

"He loved being the one they counted on," McAvoy said, "and he loved counting on them."

And while the rest of his family settled here, Kevin remained in the city he adored. He would take his visiting family on historical tours of New York, giving them impromptu lectures on speakeasies and treating each of his brothers and nephews to a full 24-hour shift at the firehouse.

When his brother, Chris, 55, the oldest Dowdell, organized a group of 60 to take a trip to Ireland, it was Kevin who met the Colorado contingent during a layover at Kennedy Airport. Kevin and his sons' pipe band led them on a half-mile march across two concourses, stopping traffic.

That's the story that brings tears to Chris' eyes, even as he recounts the day the family toured Ground Zero. Escorted by firefighters and police, the siblings lost hope for their brother when they saw the complete devastation.

They wanted to help and they wanted to find their brother. So Chris and another sibling, Tim, 44, rounded up helmets and boots -- but were told that, for security reasons, they wouldn't be allowed to work at the site.

This is perhaps the hardest part for the family even now. Work crews haven't found Kevin and the family scours newspapers and Web sites for news. They are grateful to the firefighters and the many recovery workers, but they are frustrated.

"They're doing the best that they can but it's just not fast enough," Chris said.

Health reasons prevented Gloria, Kevin's mother, from going to New York; her other daughter, Karen Dowdell, 45, and youngest son, Sean, 35, stayed behind with her. Gloria has now lost a husband, Chris, who died of cancer in 1987, and two sons. Brian, her 25-year-old third child, was killed in a New York diner in 1975 while celebrating surviving a six-year stint in the Marines.

Gloria fantasizes she might go to Ground Zero, to somehow find her son.

"I feel like I want to go there and to stand and yell 'Kevin!' like I was calling him for supper," she said.

On Tuesday, as the family gathered at McAvoy's home for Christmas dinner, they ate and drank and talked of Kevin. They were sad, remembering stories, but also glad that he died knowing he was loved.

And, they all knew with certainty that Kevin Dowdell, the good-looking middle child who loved his job and his family and his hometown, died with no regrets.

"He went everywhere he wanted to go. He saw everything he wanted to see," McAvoy said. "He did everything he wanted to do. Most people can't say that."

Contact Peggy Lowe at (303) 892-5482 or lowep@RockyMountainNews.com.

December 26, 2001