SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – An emcee requested guests at the 9/11 Memorial Ceremony here on Sept. 10, 2021, take their seats at about 8:30 a.m., the typical beginning of many such events.
As they moved about finding their assigned seats, the roar of massive diesel engines soon took over the light-hearted chatter in front of the air traffic control tower. Even at a time when an event was about to begin to honor the heroic actions of firefighters, police officers, first responders and others who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, crews from Sheppard AFB Fire Department, much like those brave men and women 20 years ago, did what they do best – respond without hesitation to another emergency.
It was a fitting beginning to a ceremony for those who ran toward trouble – not away. The memorial and a 9/11 Stair Climb marked the 20th anniversary of terror attacks that changed the nation. While many on Sheppard were affected by the tragedy two decades ago, two strangers from Queens and Brooklyn honored their brothers Sept. 10 – one as the guest speaker at the memorial, and the other as a participant in the stair climb.
TO SERVE OTHERS
Glenn Kelleher, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant and member of the 82nd Training Wing Inspector General Office, shared the stories of his brothers, who are twins – Ken, a commanding officer with the New York Police Department Harbor Unit, and Chris, a New York City firefighter – and their roles on the day the towers came down.
Kelleher said he was assigned to the 363rd Training Squadron when 9/11 happened, and watched in horror when the second commercial airliner struck the South Tower, realizing this event was no accident, rather deliberate attacks on the United States. His thoughts immediately turned to his brothers and their well-being.
He said he spoke to Chris’s wife that morning and was told his brother was off work, but had been called in and he was on his way to Manhattan. Ken was on duty, but his position at the harbor didn’t put him in immediate danger.
“At 9:59 a.m., the South Tower started to collapse. What a shock,” the Queens native said. “The expressions on people’s faces – I remember personally being numb.”
Kelleher said he was able to confirm at about 6 p.m. that evening that his brothers had survived the horrific attacks, but their journey was just beginning in the aftermath of 9/11.
Chris arrived at ground zero to do his part in the rescue efforts that immediately began, looking for anything to identify the victims. An ID card. Jewelry. Anything.
“He stayed there for 24 hours – two days he didn’t leave the site – trying to find a sense of purpose, trying to find survivors,” he said.
Ken and the Harbor Unit began arduous task of evacuating people as they fled the southwest part of Manhattan where the towers had collapsed. People who ran to the harbor began jumping into the Hudson River to escape whatever real or perceived danger there was.
“They began pulling them out of the river, getting as many people as they could onto the boats as they possible could to evacuate that lower part of Manhattan,” he said.
Kelleher said Chris didn’t go home to his family for more than two weeks until the rescue effort turned to one of recovery. Two days after being home, Chris was putting on his uniform again, this time to begin the almost-daily process of attending the funerals of fallen firefighters, sometimes multiple funerals in one day.
“To him, that was the hardest part,” he said. “The hardest part of the whole ordeal was to look at the families that were left. So, he opted to go back to the firehouse and stay at work … he didn’t tell me how many funerals he attended, but he had reached his point.”
Chris is now retired from FDNY.
Kelleher said Ken was engaged to be married in early October 2001 – Nora was also a police officer – but decided to postpone the wedding and attend the funerals of fallen officers. His leadership convinced them otherwise.
“His leadership at the time pulled him aside and said, ‘You know, this isn’t just about you and Nora,’” he said. “This is about all of us.”
Four weeks later, Kelleher attended Ken and Nora’s wedding in New York and visited ground zero, a humbling experience following such a tragedy.
Kelleher said his message to guests and others is simple – never forget.
TO HONOR A BROTHER
Albert DeRubbio, 60, stepped into the stairwell of the air traffic control tower here at Sheppard at 7:30 a.m. for his first of many assents up eight flights of stairs as one of more than 60 participants in the 20th Anniversary Stair Climb Challenge. It was a somber event for the now-retired Air Force master sergeant and 372nd Training Squadron curriculum manager. His climb was not just in memory of 9/11, but it hit closer to home – his brother, David, perished that day in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
He retired at Sheppard AFB in 2001 as a jet engine instructor at the 361st TRS just months before hijacked planes were turned into missiles. He chose to remain in North Texas to continue his career as a civilian despite being a native of Brooklyn, where his family still lived.
On 9/11, DeRubbio was at work when he got the call that changed his life forever.
His sister, Angela, called him that morning and was the most upset he had ever heard her. He said she was rambling about something, but he couldn’t understand anything she was saying. That’s when she told him to turn on the television. The first plane had already struck the South Tower and was actively burning.
At that point, they both knew four of their brothers, all New York City firefighters, would be called to the scene as it was quickly becoming an all-hands emergency.
“I remember just talking to my sister trying to get her to relax,” he said. “We were both watching the news over the phone together trying to understand what was unfolding. This is when we both witnessed the second plane hit.”
The siblings decided to end their conversation so they could reach out to relatives and try to get more information. This would be the last time the DeRubbio family would communicate for almost 10 hours. All phone lines were dead or being used for emergency responders only.
Dominick, the oldest of the brothers, was a battalion chief and was on scene guiding other responders into the buildings from the outside. David had arrived with Engine 226 and began response efforts. Brothers Anthony and Robert arrived after both buildings had already collapsed to work on the rescue and recovery efforts.
By the time they all finally spoke again, their little brother, David, was missing. The family had known he was in one of the World Trade Center buildings, but it wasn’t until the day after, when his body was recovered, they learned he was in the South Tower at the time of the collapse.
Since the death of his brother, DeRubbio has wanted to keep the memory of his brother alive. One of the ways he has done this is through participating in stair climbs since 2017.
“My goal is to keep his memory alive, and the memory of the others who died with him and on 9/11,” he said. “They were all heroes that day. They all knew it was going to be a hard day, and maybe even their last day. That’s what heroes do. When everyone was coming out, they were going up.”
David DeRubbio of NYFD Engine 226, was 38 years old when he died on 9/11. He is survived by his wife Lori, and daughter Jessica; his mother, Marion; six sibling including Marylee, Dominick, Anthony, Robert and Albert. His father, Albert Sr, has since passed.