Everybody's Best Friend

By Elizabeth Moore

April 12, 2002

Fire Lt. Kevin Donnelly was a gentle soul.

Aggressive, sure, when it was time to get into a burning building and pull someone out alive, fellow firefighters say.

Funny, no problem, when it came to breaking shoes at Ladder Co. 176 in Brownsville or later at Ladder Co. 3 on East 13th Street in Manhattan.

But he never seemed to fall short of compassion for the people he met in his job, whether it was a surly drunk on the corner or illegal immigrants crammed in floor-to-ceiling bunks in a profiteer's slum apartment. When he finished his side job as a landscaper out on Long Island, he always found a few minutes for the widows among his customers to help with their groceries, check on a contractor's job or just sit and drink iced tea and ask about the grandchildren.

"Since this thing has happened, it's amazing how many people have told me he was their best friend," said Donnelly's companion, Mary Coughlin, who shared a home with him in Mineola for six years. "He saw things in people that nobody else saw."

A fitness buff who swam relentlessly, ran three times in the New York City Marathon, and worked as a lifeguard in Wantagh, Donnelly, 43, was planning to take the captain's test in October. He was teaching fire safety in New Jersey while going to John Jay College, and was a few credits shy of a master's degree in fire protection management, which he hoped to teach after retiring. He loved any and all holidays, parades and fireworks displays, playing with his nieces and nephews' toys under the Christmas tree and carving the Thanksgiving turkey, Coughlin recalled.

The last glimpse of the 23-year FDNY veteran that his family has is a brief piece of a WPIX/11 videotape made at Ladder 3 on the morning of Sept. 11 for a live "firehouse cookoff" news segment. An hour later, Coughlin was entering Manhattan on the Long Island Rail Road when she looked up and saw smoke coming from the World Trade Center. A dozen men from Donnelly's firehouse would be lost that day; his body was recovered March 12.

The son of a Wantagh postal worker, Donnelly declared his love for his future profession as a small boy when he "always would ride around in little red fire trucks," his mother, Cecilia Donnelly recalled.

He attended St. Pius X Prep in Uniondale, and as soon as he turned 18, he joined his older brother, Edward Jr., as a volunteer in the Wantagh Fire Department, and took the New York Fire Department test while he was in college. He was sworn in at 21, and a year later, the city pinned a medal on him for rescuing two children from a blaze.

Donnelly parlayed that honor into a transfer to the Brownsville Tin House, one of the city's busiest fire companies, and the life saving continued. His mother loved going to medal day. "He looked so handsome in his white hat," she said.

The six months of waiting for his body's recovery were a strain for everyone. When Donnelly was buried the day after St.Patrick's Day; a lone piper played at his funeral.

"I couldn't talk before they found Kevin," Cecilia Donnelly said. "I think I am at peace because I know where my son is now, and I'm very proud." In addition to his mother and brother, Donnelly is survived by his father, Edward; brother Brian; sister Mary Cay Martin, and five nephews.