“Now we’re stronger, and we’re here to help you.”
Growing up in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Bill Keegan watched the construction of the Twin Towers from the windows of his high school. In 1993, as a Port Authority police officer, he helped rescue children trapped in an elevator when the North Tower was damaged by a truck bomb. When terrorists struck again in 2001, Keegan, by then a lieutenant, was off duty, accompanying one of his three young daughters to a checkup at a New Jersey hospital. “I heard everybody start screaming in the hallway” as they watched the catastrophe unfold on TV, he recalls. He took his daughter home, then raced down the New Jersey Turnpike as smoke billowed on the horizon. By the time he reached the Holland Tunnel, just across the river from lower Manhattan, the towers had fallen.
The Port Authority lost 37 officers that morning, many of them Keegan’s close friends. He narrowly escaped death himself hours later, when Building 7, a 47-story structure that was part of the World Trade Center complex, collapsed. “It was half a block away,” he says. “We took off, but the huge plume caught up to us, and we breathed in a lot of the stuff.” The next day, he took over as commander of the nighttime rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero.
Over the next nine months, Keegan bonded fiercely with the cops, firefighters, and construction workers at the site. Their shifts were long, backbreaking, and emotionally grueling. “I remember one recovery that took us 13 hours, in a very dangerous area,” he says. A body lay trapped within a pile of twisted steel, which threatened to topple onto the crew at any moment. When they finally loaded the corpse into a pickup truck under a light rain, “all these guys started crying. The mud was caked on their faces, and their tears looked like a river coming down.”
Keegan’s labor amid the smoldering ruins changed him forever. “Down there, things were black-and-white. My ability to bring comfort to people was so direct. It completed me somehow.” When he returned to ordinary police work, “the world seemed gray. I felt myself retreating, not caring as much.” Keegan was just 50 when he retired in 2005 after 20 years on the force. He wrote a memoir, Closure: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Recovery Mission. Then he pondered what to do with the rest of his life.
The answer came with Hurricane Katrina. Watching the slow and inept responses to the disaster, Keegan saw a need for the expertise he and his comrades had gained at the World Trade Center—and an opportunity to restore the feeling of purpose they all were now missing. In 2007, he enlisted two other 9/11 first responders—NYPD lieutenants Owen McCaffery and John A. Moran—and Tom Thees, a financial-industry executive. Together, they founded HEART 9/11, a nonprofit disaster-response corps (the acronym stands for Healing Emergency Aid Response Team) comprising more than 300 Ground Zero veterans as well as many relatives of those who perished in the New York attacks.
“All of a sudden, I realized what was important in life,” Keegan says. “I wanted to do something I could invest in emotionally, something that helped people. And that’s what this feels like—going back, to the sense of mission at the World Trade Center, yet moving forward.”
For its first project, the group built more than a dozen homes in St. Bernard Parish, a Louisiana community hard hit by Katrina. Four years later, in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, they built 50 homes in six days. Teams have also helped residents rebuild housing after a flood in Nashville.
“People hug us,” Keegan reports proudly. “They say, ‘You’re helping me? After what you’ve been through?’ And we say, ‘Well, that’s why we’re here. We know what it’s like. We survived September 11 with the help of a lot of people. Now we’re stronger, and we’re here to help you.’”