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Aug 26, 2021

Holmdel Resident Recalls Responding to Ground Zero

By Shanna O’Mara

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, now-retired firefighter Joe McKay was attending a charity golf outing on Staten Island. The annual outing was organized to collect for an emergency fund, money that would be distributed to a firefighter’s family if they fell on hard times. McKay, who was a member of Engine Co. 201 in Brooklyn and now lives in Holmdel, thought the tragedy of the day would be his swing.

“I am not much of a golfer,” he said. “I went that morning to help out, and my friend, Shotzy, was back at the fire house for me. I remember him saying, ‘See you tonight’ because I was on the schedule later.” 

What should have been a relaxing 18 holes followed by a typical shift in Brooklyn instead became chaos and weeks of on-call duty. While at the golf event, someone switched the TV on, and the scene played out in front of McKay: a plane hit the World Trade Center. Like much of the world, McKay stood watching the tragedy – baffled, worried, heartbroken. Then the second plane made impact.

“About a minute after the second plane hit, we were told we were under total recall. Every EMT, cop and firefighter was ordered to respond. We were told to go to the fire house, get equipment and go.”

McKay hopped in his car and headed to Brooklyn. On the way, he stopped by his home to tell his wife to take their two kids out of school and go to her sister’s house. He and other first responders made their way to the Brooklyn Bridge as the first tower collapsed. Little did he know, Shotzy – John A. Schardt – was on scene, rushing into the second tower as tragedy struck again. When the second tower fell, his friend was lost. Unaware at the time, McKay recalls only looking at his brothers in uniform and simply saying, “Let’s go.” They commandeered a New York City MTS bus in Lower Manhattan, driving as far as they could until the smoke grew too thick, and they had to continue on foot. 

“It was hell on Earth,” he said. “Everyone has seen the pictures, but nothing captured what it was. We were all in shock, but we had to get work done. We had to find water and start putting fires out. Everything was burning. Orders were chaotic.” 

The first responders located a fire boat that was pulling water from the Hudson River, so they ran a hose into a building on the south side of the Twin Towers. McKay said they ran up 17 floors to douse the flames. He and others put out several surrounding fires before returning to Ground Zero for search and rescue duties. He remained at “the pile” for two days, rummaging through the rubble, hoping to find anyone he could save. He never did. His captain instructed him and the others to go home and seek medical attention for their eyes and lungs. McKay did as he was told but was back on the scene the next day, where he remained for two weeks.

McKay lost 26 friends as a result of the attacks, including four from Engine Co. 201 and seven from a house he had previously worked at in Manhattan.

Simply put, “If we weren’t digging, we were at a funeral.”

Six months after Sept. 11, McKay experienced his first cluster headache. 

“I was in the fire house working. It was around 1 am,” he said. “All of a sudden, I got this feeling, like I had eaten ice cream too fast. It got worse and worse. Eventually, I told the officer in charge, ‘I have to go to the hospital.’” 

After a few tests, McKay returned home with a diagnosis of unspecified migraine. It took six more weeks and several specialist appointments before he learned he was actually suffering from cluster headaches. These are a series of extremely painful attacks which can occur every day for weeks or months at a time. Cluster headaches are rare and usually come just a few hours after someone has fallen asleep and has entered the REM phase.

“I thought I was going to die,” McKay said. “It feels like an ice pick is being driven through your eye. They would come every hour. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t function.” 

For months, McKay said he battled the cluster headaches while continuing to work. He couldn’t imagine a life without his company and didn’t want to leave his brothers behind. He even chose not to have surgery – which could have removed soot from his sinuses and lessened his symptoms – just so he wouldn’t miss time on the job. After years of taking steroids and requiring oxygen to properly breathe, McKay said he was “pushed against a wall.”

“It was the lowest place I had ever been in my life,” he said. “I found a new basement. It was constant pain, and I had no answers. It was not an easy decision to leaving the fire department, but nothing was working, and I was scared.”

In 2010, McKay had surgery to help with his condition. In 2011, he retired from the department. 

This is no cure for cluster headaches, and research about causes and treatments is relatively inconclusive. As a result, they are not recognized as an approved illness under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which McKay helped advocate to get passed. McKay continues to fight for Sept. 11 victims’ healthcare and has worked with Jon Stewart to secure funding for such efforts. As hard as he works for those who were there during and after the tragedy, he also has a message for those who were not. 

“Never forget Sept. 12,” he said. “Everyone was human. Everyone was happy to be alive. There was a spirit of cooperation, and people just wanted to help. The love we got from this country is what kept us going. I hope it doesn’t take another tragedy to reinstate that. I wish there was some magic pill to get back there, but we all know it’s in us. We are all together. Don’t forget that.”

To learn more about cluster headaches and McKay’s story, visit the Global Healthy Living Foundation’s podcast, Talking Head Pain at omny.fm/shows/talking-head-pain/cluster-headache-and-men.