Fallen brothers

Retired New York firefighter returns to assist in the aftermath of terror

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— Kevin Nerney will step back into the life he led for 15 years this morning, but he knows it will never be the same.

Nerney will get out of a taxi and rush into the Brooklyn, N.Y., firehouse at 172 Tiller St.

Then, he will put on the firefighting gear he wore for so many years the boots, overalls, jacket and helmet of the firefighters of Engine 207.

Nerney, a retired firefighter now living in Steamboat Springs, will once again join his colleagues. But unlike any call he has been on before, this one is personal.

"As soon as I heard that the World Trade Center had been hit, I knew we were there," Nerney said Wednesday morning.

Had Nerney, 43, not retired from the FDNY this past summer, he likely would have been among the firefighters from the Brooklyn station that responded to the towers following the terrorist attack. He has shared that thought with his former partner, with whom he used to alternate shifts.

"One of us would have gone on the call and one of us would have been buried under the rubble," he said.

Nerney, a former lieutenant who moved to Steamboat Springs in July, flew out Wednesday to return to his native New York to volunteer and help recover the close to 6,000 people believed to have died in the Sept. 11 incident.

More than 200 New York firefighters and 40 police officers are believed to be among the dead.

For Nerney, the deaths hit close to his heart. When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, he was one of many firefighters to respond from the station across the Brooklyn Bridge.

As the events unfolded last week, Nerney knew former colleagues were rushing to the smoldering towers. In fact, there were six firefighters from Engine 207 and seven firefighters from Ladder 110.

"The engine company did not make it out," Nerney said as he sat on a pile of plywood outside the home he is building west of Steamboat. "The truck company was able to make it out."

So far, Nerney has learned of nine colleagues who perished. He fears that number may rise once he is in New York.

"I'm planning to go through the list," Nerney said. "Through the years, I worked with a lot of firefighters."

Since the incident occurred, Nerney and his family's thoughts have been in New York and with the friends who have been affected.

"At times, I spent more time with these guys than I would my own family," he said.

Said his wife, Kathy Nerney: "These were people my husband had breakfast with. We attended their christenings, weddings and attended picnics and barbecues together.

"He is going back to help his brothers."

On the day of the tragedy, Nerney was driving through town when his wife stopped him.

"She told me the World Trade Center had been hit," he said.

Nerney rushed home and watched the events unfold on television.

"Initially, I didn't think it was that big of a deal," he said. "But when I saw the first building come down, I knew we were in trouble. I never expected for the buildings to come down. It looked like a Hollywood special effect. It didn't seem real. It is unbelievable."

Nerney has been anxious to get back to New York. He thought about driving but was able to book a flight from Denver to New York. He flew out at midnight and was to land in New York at 6 a.m. today.

So far, the family has been able to get information by talking to friends and from news reports.

On Wednesday, Nerney was ready to board an airplane and get to the city.

"I wish I could have been able to get back sooner," he said. "But I'm glad I will be able to get back at all. I don't know what to expect. They tell me the pictures they have shown on television do not do the scene justice."

Although Nerney is mourning the death of numerous colleagues, he is not angry.

"I don't harbor any anger toward anyone," he said. "This is not the first time I have had to bury colleagues. Thirty-seven guys died in my 20 years. The department lost guys on New Year's and Christmas Eve. It's part of the job.

"But to lose all these guys in one swoop is incredible. There were guys who were veterans, young guys with young children and rookies with no experience. That is tough."

The Nerneys' goal of moving to Steamboat Springs started years ago when the couple made a trip out West. The Long Island native knew he would retire after spending 20 years with the city of New York, the last 15 as a firefighter and the first five as a police officer.

"I always wanted to move to a mountain town," Nerney said. "I just didn't know where."

Said Kathy: "Fourteen years ago we went on a cross-country trip, and we wanted to find the most beautiful place. We found little Steamboat Springs."

The couple bought a piece of property, which they were able to sell and then use the proceeds to buy a lot within the Silver Spur development. The family arrived in Steamboat Springs July 5 with their daughter, Marykate, 14, and son, Joseph, 10.

Although they have been here a short time, the community has been very supportive.

"The outpouring of condolences from this area has been incredible," said Kathy Nerney, a teacher's aide at Soda Creek Elementary.

"Every night, we have at least five telephone messages from total strangers."

Her husband agrees.

Since the family has been in town, Nerney has been working on their home. One of the first things he built was a wooden pole for a flag, which now has been lowered to half-staff.

Nerney has also chosen to remember his fallen colleagues with a message spray painted on his unfinished roof.

In orange spray paint, Nerney painted "FDNY" and "God Rest Their Souls," which is visible to neighbors and passing motorists.

Since the tragedy, Kathy Nerney has thought often about what might have happened to the family had they stayed in New York.

"That would have been Kevin," she said. "But we can't look at it that way."

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