‘A fresh start’: Retired NYC firefighter, family find community in rural NC

DENVER, N.C. — It’s been 20 years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people in Washington, DC, Pennsylvania, and New York City.

North Carolina couple Sean and Becky Keenan were living in New York at the time, with Sean Keenan working as a city firefighter.

“I could smell it right now just as if it was that day,” Keenan said of the smoke-filled air near the World Trade Center.

For Keenan, though decades have passed, the memories linger.

“Two towers, but there were no chairs, no cabinets, there was no carpets. I mean everything was just obliterated,” he said.

Keenan had the day off from work, but after learning of the attacks at the World Trade Center, immediately rushed to the site to help.

Photo of New York City Firefighter Sean Keenan.

”It was all about the family after -- just taking care of the family, you know? That’s why you dug. Just to give them some kind of closure or peace,” he said.

Keenan referred to the mountains of rubble in New York City as “the pile.” For months, he and other first responders returned almost daily, digging for survivors, and eventually, those who’d lost their lives.

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”It was just overwhelming,” he said. “There’s pictures of guys standing on that pile. The pile was so big, so big.”

In 2001, Keenan worked with two fire companies, housed in different parts of the city. Rarely, if ever, would the two work alongside one another, though Keenan shared a prized photo, which captured the two trucks, side by side, following the attacks.

Everyone from both companies died.

”Sean went to, I think it was like 55 funerals,” said wife Becky Keenan.

The two dated previously, but were not together at the time of the attacks.

”After September 11, immediately my thoughts turned to Sean and was wondering, ‘Oh my gosh, what happened, where is he?’ And nobody at that time had heard from him in the neighborhood,” Becky Keenan said.

This went on for three days, she said, until Sean finally walked through the doors of a local pub they both frequented.

”He looked at me and I looked at him and we both just started crying and we hugged each other and said we loved each other and pretty much that was it.”

The Keenan’s story is one of love, loss, but also a determination to honor the lives they’ve been fortunate enough to live. The family relocated to the Denver area in 2015, where they recently started a lemonade stand and hot dog cart, aptly named “Firehouse Hot Dogs.” Both immediately drew the community’s support.

”I figured I got lucky enough so it was time to go,” Sean Keenan said of his retirement. The couple now has two children, boys, both of whom will often lend a hand at the family business.

”As much as we say it didn’t affect us, the idea of a fresh start sounded nice,” Becky Keenan said.

”I was uncomfortable to talk about this because I didn’t want the spotlight to be on me or what I did,” Sean Keenan added. “I’d just like everyone to know the real heroes are the guys who died, you know. These were our friends. These were our brothers. Literally. So it was real important to be there and I don’t regret it for a second.”

(WATCH BELOW: ‘It’s hard not to be emotional about it’: Gaston County man inside Pentagon on 9/11 shares his story)