Steven Kelly was a 15-year-old high school sophomore on Sept. 11, 2001.
He remembers being in his second-period history class when news broke of a plane crashing into one of the twin towers in lower Manhattan. In his third-period class, the TV was on and students watched a live feed as the second plane plowed into the World Trade Center.
“We were all in shock,” Kelly, now 32, recalls.
When the south tower collapsed, the teacher shut the television off.
“It was hard to grasp what had happened,” he said. “I was only 15…” His voice trails off.
Kelly remembers how worry set in. Everyone in his family was either a New York City firefighter or police officer. Communication was next to impossible. Cell phones were useless. Students who had family working at the World Trade Center were allowed to use a pay phone at his high school, Bishop Kellenberg in Uniondale.
“I had to go through the whole day not knowing if everyone was all right,” he said.
He remembers getting off the school bus that afternoon and walking toward home. His mother and neighbors were out in the street. “It was the longest walk of my life,” he said.
“We heard from your father and we heard from Uncle Jim,” she told him. “We haven’t heard from Uncle Tommy,” his mother said. “That’s just Tommy being Tommy. He’s busy helping other people.”
The hours wore on. Like all Americans that evening, they remained glued to the television. There was still no word from Tommy.
“I remember the breaking news scroll on the TV, over the video shot that day of the burning towers. It said the first 150 first responders all died. I’ll never forget that,” Kelly said.
“From then on, everything was kind of a blur.”
The hours turned into days.
He remembers looking up how long people might be able to survive in the rubble. He found reports about Japanese earthquake survivors found alive after 12 days.
“We were just waiting, praying, holding out hope,” he said.
But the call they prayed for never came.
His uncle, NYFD Lt. Thomas R. Kelly and the other members of Ladder Company 105 in Brooklyn, had rushed into the burning south tower of the World Trade Center in the hope of saving people trapped inside.
Thomas Kelly never made it out. He was 38 years old. His remains were never recovered.
At some point that October, his parents Emmet and Sue Kelly held a memorial service for their fallen son, their grandson Steven recalls.
“Honestly, it’s still all a blur.”
Seventeen years later, Steven Kelly is now a grown man and the father of another Kelly boy, Channing Thomas, who will turn one on Sept. 14. Steven became a teacher and taught in the Bronx, but gave it up and now works as a sous chef at Digger’s in downtown Riverhead. He lives in Farmingville with his fiancee Devyn West and their young son.
He remembers his Uncle Tom as the man who taught him how to scuba dive off the wrecks on the L.I. Sound, near the summer home in Reeves Park that was so important to his entire family. His uncle taught him how to fish and taught him about marine life, bringing him to the Atlantis aquarium on Main Street where Tommy Kelly was a volunteer.
Steven Kelly spoke to the crowd gathered last night for the annual remembrance service at the Sept. 11 Memorial Park on Sound Avenue at the corner of Lt. Thomas R. Kelly Drive. The annual service at the site dates back to 2010 — predating the establishment of the park itself in 2013 after Reeves Park residents organized a campaign to have the county acquire the site then slated for commercial development.
“He taught me to root for the home team — the Mets — and to never give up,” Kelly told the crowd gathered in the park, including local firefighters, police, Boy Scouts and town officials, as well as several dozen Reeves Park neighbors.
“If you were lucky enough to have known my Uncle Tom, I encourage you to speak of him often, tell his stories, tell his jokes, share his memories and keep pushing forward,” he said.
“You’re going to take some losses, but — ‘You’ve gotta believe,'” Kelly said, echoing the rally cry of Mets reliever Tug McGraw that became the mantra of Tommy Kelly’s beloved baseball team.
“Never give up hope.”
Ceremonies yesterday evening included a reading from the Book of Isaiah by Father Piotr Narkiewicz of St. Isidore’s church, vocal selections — the “Star Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America” and “Amazing Grace” performed by Caitlin Beirne, 16, and taps played by Brian Noone, 15.
Anne Marie Ielpi, the sister of NYFD Firefighter Jonathan Ielpi, also a Reeves Park summer resident, spoke to the gathering tonight. Her brother, of Squad 288 in Queens, had been a member of NYFD for five years on Sept. 11, 2001. He left behind a wife and two young sons.
Ielpi and Kelly were among 343 NYC firefighters killed in the World Trade Center as they attempted to save civilians trapped in the burning towers.
Kelly’s two older brothers, Bob and Jim — retired NYFD and NYPD, respectively — and his sister Jeanmarie were on hand to mark the solemn occasion in Riverhead after a day spent at ceremonies at the Brooklyn firehouse and at Ground Zero, a grim annual tradition begun in 2011.
“It’s a long day,” Bob Kelly said, fatigued by the ordeal. Even so, as the sun set over the farm field to the west, he glowed as he guided his grandson Channing Thomas’ tentative steps around the park, a small American flag gripped in his pudgy toddler hand.
“This is what it’s all about,” Bob Kelly said, the sorrow of the day overcome by the joy of being a grandfather, “the next generation and hope for the future.”
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti
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