Firefighter's family is left without son, without illusions

A few years ago, Bill and Eileen Kennedy drove from their home in Franklin County, Va. to see their youngest son, Tom, sworn in as a New York City firefighter and again to see him graduate from his training program.

"We were very proud, of course," Bill Kennedy said. They knew fighting fires could be dangerous. Bill Kennedy had retired after 29 years as a New York firefighter and moved with his wife to Smith Mountain Lake nine years ago.

Bill Kennedy once spent 30 minutes trapped beneath a fallen roof at a fire in Brooklyn. Luckily, he emerged with only a sprained ankle.

"You always have the thought that something can happen," he said. "It's part of the job."

Something happened on Sept. 11. An airliner crashed into one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York. Tom Kennedy was among the first firefighters on the scene. He has not yet been found. (Tom was found in November)

Kennedy's fire station was just across the East River from the burning buildings, "We knew Tom and his company were among the first firefighters to reach the scene."

Then something else, something unthinkable, happened. Another plane hit the other tower.

"From what I get, they were going in like it was a high-rise fire," Bill Kennedy said. "When that other plane hit it, they knew this was not something normal."

The terrorist attack left thousands missing, including at least 300 firefighters.

At 4 p.m. that day, Tom's wife, Allison, called and said she'd heard her husband and his colleagues were safe. "We went to bed thinking everything was OK," Bill Kennedy said. "At about 12:30 a.m., we got a call saying the whole company was missing."

In the middle of the night, the Kennedys packed and left for New York. They stayed with relatives for two weeks. Information was scarce, even at his son's firehouse. Initially, people were excluded from the horrific scene.

"After that, if I went I would have to take my other two sons" -Robert, 38, a service underwriter at a car dealership, and Brian, 39, a warehouse supervisor. "They're not ready for it. I'm not ready for it."

This week, the Kennedys came back home with their hopes all but dashed.

Tom Kennedy went into firefighting after graduating from college. Usually, he drove a truck for Ladder Company 101, Battalion 32, of the New York City Fire Department.

Allison Kennedy told New York reporters that her husband and his company "didn't have the fear that we, as civilians, would. He didn't ever think they wouldn't come out of the fire - ever."

Bill Kennedy knew it could happen.

"I've been to too many funerals," he said.

In this case, "You sort of know what the end is going to be. You'd like to get some kind of official word, but they still don't have everybody, and it will be a long time before they do."

He has no illusions.

"We'll probably stay here until we hear something, and then go back to New York and have the service up there."

He and Eileen have five grandchildren. Two of them - Michael, 2, and James, 10 months - are Tom and Allison's.

The Scruggs Volunteer Fire Department, to which Bill Kennedy belongs, has set up a Thomas Kennedy Family Memorial Fund to pay for Tom's kids' education. Contributions may be sent to BB&T Bank at 13400 Booker T. Washington Highway, Moneta, VA 24141.

Danger always has been part of firefighting, but this terrorism thing is new. Grief has been around forever.

"You're surprised by the pain," Bill Kennedy said. "You start crying for no reason. It's not real."