Building for Life
by Ed Lowe
John McShane, 33, recently moved back from upstate to Long Island and is staying temporarily with his oldest brother, Kieran, 45, in West Islip.
Now a newly hired teacher's assistant in Massapequa, John was at work at an upstate software company when he heard the first horrific reports about the World Trade Center attack. He knew that Kieran worked in downtown Manhattan, for Moody's Investors Service, so first he called Kieran's wife, Anne. She said Kieran was on his way home; he was OK. "He was at the Downtown Athletic Club," John said. "His office is north of the World Trade Center, and he was going to go through the tunnels to get there. Once he saw a jet engine in the street, he knew he had to get out."
John next called Cathy, his brother Terence's wife. Terence, 37, also of West Islip, is a former New York City police sergeant. He was with the department for 12 years, until 1999, when he switched and joined the fire department, thinking he would be able to spend more time with Cathy and their sons: Aidan, 7, and 4-year-old twins, Sean and Colin.
Terence started out in Engine 308 in Queens, but because of a relatively new system of rotating young firefighters through different assignments in different parts of the city, he most recently was working out of a firehouse in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, with Ladder 101, on the opposite end of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel from the World Trade Center.
Cathy began telephoning the firehouse at 9:15 a.m. Sept. 11. There were false reports, at first, that everyone was accounted for, but soon, Terence was listed among the missing. "Seven firefighters are missing from Ladder 101," Cathy said yesterday. "Six are married with children. Last Sunday, we all got together for lunch on Staten Island, because that's where four of them live. We all kind of felt that we were trying to be realistic, but we still were hoping for a miracle. The men were on their trucks at the mouth of the Battery when they saw the second plane hit, and they were inside the building when Tower Two collapsed."
Terence and Cathy bought their West Islip house six years ago. It was a fixer-upper, according to John. The arrival of twins hastened by a year or two the scheduling of the actual fixing-up. In order to be better able to finance the work, the McShanes had hired a part-time home improvement contractor (also a New York City firefighter) to do the structural alterations and framing, figuring that Terence and his father-in-law, Bob Watt of Massapequa (a retired New York firefighter), could install the insulation and the sheetrock. They thus would add a bedroom upstairs, expand the smaller bedrooms and enlarge and renovate the kitchen. Eventually, probably a few years hence, Terence would tackle a re-do of the upstairs bathroom, too.
While the house was being dismantled, the Terence McShanes moved into the Deer Park house where all the McShanes had grown up: Kieran; another brother, Brian, 43, a physical education teacher who lives in upstate Stanfordville; Maribeth Eccleston, 39, of Islip, a nurse at Winthrop-University Hospital; and John. The house was readied for sale, but the siblings agreed to make it available to Cathy and Terence. A 1993 stroke had required that their mother, Jeanne, move to a nursing care facility in Northport. Their father, John McShane, died in 1978.
"So, in the midst of all this," said Anne McShane, "the horror of September 11 was further complicated by the fact that Cathy and the boys are not even in their own home."
However, about four days after the attack, people started showing up at the West Islip renovation site. "I just went there to get out of the house," said John, "and more and more people started showing up, all day, sometimes, too many." Watt and Terence's lifelong friend, Keith Higgins of Babylon, a New York City cop, wound up coordinating a steady stream of volunteer workers who currently are nearing the completion of the work that Terence didn't expect to finish until early winter. Terence was a rugby player for years, and former club members, both skilled and unskilled in the building trades, have volunteered regularly, as have former colleague lifeguards, police officers, firefighters, neighbors and total strangers.
"I know I bought a little sheetrock to do something," John said, "but I don't even know where the flooring material came from. I only know that the floor guy is a professional, and that he didn't even know my brother. The upstairs bathroom has been completely redone. People stop by and say, 'I don't know how to do anything, but can I clean something, or just take out the garbage?' I think it might be all done in a few weeks."