I usually associate heroism with individuals, but now I know it also runs in families. The Keatings are a New York family; solid Irish Catholic stock from Staten Island, Yankee fans to the core. Cornelius John, the father, was a New York Sandy Hook pilot who once was given a tryout in Yankee Stadium. He had six children, three boys and three girls, and they are a close family. One of his sons, Cornelius Hanlon, known to everyone as Neil, followed him into the pilot service. Another son, Jeff, went into the insurance business. The third, Paul, became a New York City firefighter.
I met Neil, who celebrated his 44th birthday on Sept. 9, earlier this year at the annual dinner of the Marine Society of the City of New York. He was being presented a Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service from the New York State Pilot Commission and a letter of commendation from New York Gov. George Pataki. On Feb. 10, Neil more or less single-handedly prevented a collision of two loaded oil tankers off Staten Island after one of them started to drag its anchor in heavy wind. An explosion with loss of life and a devastating oilspill would likely have resulted. But Neil is the type of person who was surprised a few days later when colleagues congratulated him for his quick thinking and deft seamanship.It turned out Neil had a history of heroism. In December 1980 he rescued a 69-year-old waterfront union official whose launch had flooded in New York harbor. He dove repeatedly under the frigid waters to locate him, pulled him into the pilot boat and administered CPR to keep the man alive. Later that day the man died in the hospital bed next to his, Neil having been admitted for hypothermia.
In 1997, Neil was the victim of a catastrophic accident that would have ended the careers of most men. He had taken a parcel tanker out to sea, and it was time to disembark. Swells from the east collided with wind from the west, creating huge waves, and the air was thick with a mixture of fog and rain. The 600-foot ship 'was getting tossed around like a cork,' he recalls. Neil lowered himself into position on the Jacob's ladder, but somehow the ladder got snagged on the pilot boat as it approached. He got crushed against the side of the ship as the boat smacked again and again against the hull. He suffered broken ribs, torn rotator cuffs, knee damage and other injuries. Miraculously, the pilot boat crew got him to shore, after packing him in ice and frozen peas for the rough ride back. Many did not expect him to return to work. But Neil willed himself back through a regimen of grueling physical therapy marked by demoralizing setbacks. A year later he was able to return to the work he loves.
Sadly, the story of the Keatings' heroism does not end there. When the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Neil's brother Paul was off duty at his apartment on Cedar Street, practically adjacent to the Trade Center complex. He is a fireman with Engine 24 Truck 5 on Avenue of the Americas and West Houston. 'He heard the explosion and went out to the nearest firehouse to help his brothers,' Neil said. No one knows exactly what happened because Paul, the youngest of the Keating children, is one of the 311 firefighters who were still missing last week. That number includes 10 others from Paul's SOHO firehouse.
Neil has been at the Trade Center site every day since the attack, serving coffee, helping the Red Cross, sitting with the firemen, many of whom are his friends. 'I feel comfortable with the firemen,' he said, recalling that Paul was one of the people whose support helped him get through his rehab.
It's been said this past week that we Americans must summon courage to move forward with our lives. It's examples like the Keatings that teach us the meaning of that word.
Peter Tirschwell is editor of JoC Week. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell