On Saturday, September 29, two fathers from New York were killed at a military checkpoint in some far off place called Wardak Province in Afghanistan. Sgt. First Class Daniel Metcalfe of Liverpool, New York, became number 2,000 in this war’s casualty list of the military. He was 29 years old and leaves behind a wife and three young children. His oldest is six. The other father is a man who worked as a civilian contractor with NATO, a former sergeant with the New York City Police Department and member of the city’s elite Emergency Services Unit who was working thousands of miles away from home and his two teenage children, a man who could fix anything and someone who could get you out of anything.
Kevin O’Rourke is someone I knew.
I only have a snapshot of him from the two years I spent in the 23rd Precinct for a book project. While he introduced me to his wife, Stacey, I didn’t see him at home on Long Island, or witness the bonds with his family and friends or as a brother in the military and the Police Department. In my line of work, I am merely an observer, and I rode with cops on patrol to document the day-to-day life of the precinct from sunup to sundown that represented them during this fixed point in time.
As a recorder of people in both words and photographs, some people stick with you, and they and their words and faces come back to you in an instant. They help shape and define you, sometimes with a jolt, sometimes subtlety, and other times, it’s a slow cooking process.
Kevin stuck with me. I saw a piece of him, and that was at work as a sergeant on patrol in East Harlem. He pulled up in the afternoons in an old car, often with a cigar in hand, and a bag of tools. He came to work in the NYPD, just as his father did, and his squad of cops on the four-to-twelve shift liked and respected him. There was something sturdy and rooted about Kevin, a sense of confidence that he could handle anything and that everything would turn out all right.
Cops can be as finicky as cats and they don’t always like or respect their supervisors, no matter how well they’ve scored on Civil Service exams or how much experience they have. Sergeants and other supervisors operated on the basis of their personalities, predispositions, strengths and fears, ethics, training, and orders. Some were leaders, wanted to be in charge, others were in charge, some wanted to be buddies, others couldn’t care less. Kevin cared. And because he felt that all of us were his responsibility and treated his squad with respect, they knew that when he showed up at a scene it wasn’t to berate or bully them or to find something wrong. He was not afraid to make a decision and the cops knew when he showed up, he would be levelheaded and pragmatic.
His driver was the oldest serving police officer in the precinct, a man who carried a history of the NYPD within him and they bonded well. Walter McKenney, who knew the streets inside and out, always drove Kevin. Often, the men talked more than the women. This wasn’t the case here, though. Kevin spoke of his father; Stacey, who worked with the Housing Police downtown; their home in Long Island; setting up some contraption to brew beer; and I remember he told of one of his first jobs, working with Estee Lauder, the cosmetics company, in the warehouse and always having free samples on hand for his girlfriends. And sometimes, there were the silences that bond men together.
We joked that in our old age, all of us, whether we liked each other or not, would all wind up in the same nursing home together. I wish I could remember more of the conversations, had spent more time with him, had taken more photographs, had stayed in touch.
I rode less with Kevin because sergeants are typically not as active as the cops who answer jobs on the radio. They often show up later at the scene or are inside handling paperwork, something he never liked, I recall. He hated sitting in traffic, as I did, because it means you could be doing something else. I can see his police car pulling up slowly to the patrol car I rode in, facing us in the street.
“How ya doing, Sarge?” the cop driving would call out, passing their memo books through the car window.
He signed the books and asked how everything was and asked how we were doing.
“Getting some good stuff?” he would call out to me. “Everything okay?”
And then he would drive off with a little wave, turning the corner and then out of sight.
Kevin taught me tactics and reminded me not to stand in front of apartment doors when cops knocked on them—someone with a gun could shoot through it—and that jumping out of the patrol car first was perhaps not a good idea. It was a habit based on curiosity and well, I tried. Kevin also suggested writing the address of where we were in the event I had to grab a police radio in an emergency. Most of the time, I scribbled the address in my notebook and thankfully, there was never an emergency.
Once, Kevin, standing behind the desk behind the complaint window in the command, and I were in conversation. The days of time passing have dulled the memory of words. It might have been about writing. He gave me the first compliment I received from anyone in the 23rd Precinct. Cops don’t often compliment each other, let alone a stranger that not everyone wanted documenting their work. I don’t remember the context but have never forgotten the words: “You can tell by your eyes how intelligent you are.” Knowing me, I probably made a flip comment but it made me respect him even more. Two other cops said that if I were a cop they would partner with me; I’m sure others couldn’t wait for me to leave. But his compliment is the one I carry with me.
Kevin would have made a great commanding officer but he hated correcting paperwork, wasn’t interested in taking any more Civil Service exams, and at heart, was an Emergency Services guy who liked to fix things, the more challenging the better. He looked at me in desperation one day after reviewing paperwork.
“Can’t you teach these guys how to write?” he asked impatiently.
I think his time at the 23rd Precinct was really a stopover before he returned to Emergency Services, which he eventually did, teaching scuba diving.
Just across from the desk, Sergeant Kevin O’Rourke handles roll call, reminding the ranks of veterans and rookies about how to fill out arrest and stop-and-frisk reports, complaining of incomplete information, poor grammar and spelling on previous submissions. Called 61s, arrest reports detail the names and addresses of criminals and victims, and outline time, place, and occurrence.
“There has to be a story. Put it in chronological order. Fill the story out. Actions of victim-fill that out,” he instructs, sounding impatient. “What were they doing? Standing on the street corner? Mark that down. Let’s make the sixty-ones more complete. Maybe I can offer you a little help. Stop us. Let us see the sixty-ones. If you get hit with an object, that’s an Assault Two. Everyone has a vest?”
His squad taps their chests in affirmation. Anything on this four-to-twelve watch will be his responsibility.
He mentions cops committing suicide.
“In case you haven’t heard, and if you want to talk about anything, that shit stays with me. You have someone to talk to.”
With his dark Irish looks and thick brush of a mustache, Sergeant O’Rourke looks as if he stepped out of Teddy Roosevelt’s days as police commissioner a century earlier. A former cop in the Emergency Services Unit before he was promoted, O’Rourke is accustomed to dealing with far more serious crises, like suicidal jumpers, people trapped in cars and apartments, and building collapses.
“It’s like a juggling act,” O’Rourke says of his new role. “You have to deal with every cop as an individual. Some think that they’re in high school or on some sort of sightseeing trip. I’ve had people say that if it weren’t for the money, they wouldn’t be here. And there are police families: you do what your father did.”
O’Rourke became a cop like his father, a retired detective.
“I’ve always loved this job,” he says enthusiastically. “When Dad joined in 1964, it was still a romantic job. The kids in the neighborhood in Queens knew that your father’s a cop. It was almost like a status symbol.”
When he completes roll call and his squad lines up for radios and car keys, a sad-eyed pooch observes the scene from the back of the room, a stray from the streets. An officer grabs a can of Alpo from the kitchen and feeds it to the dog on a paper plate.
“Well, that’s one redeeming quality that you have,” someone quips wryly. “You like animals.”
Walter McKenney, a cop for over twenty years, stands behind the desk. He is to be Sergeant O’Rourke’s designated driver.
“He’s had two thousand years on the Job,” says a patrolman, pointing to McKenney’s white hair.
O’Rourke and his squad gather outside in the parking lot, passing the incoming day tour. A few exchange high-fives, as they prepare for their evening’s work.
I remember riding with him, sharing the backseat with his large tool bag, when a call came over the radio for a man stuck in an elevator in one of the neighborhood housing projects.
“Central, I’ll take that,” he spoke into the police radio.
Kevin, Walter, and I trudged up I-don’t- know-how-many flights of stairs.
“You okay back there?” Kevin called back.
“Not sure yet,” I responded, winded and perspiring. “I’ll let you know when I get there.”
He leaned into the door of the stuck elevator.
“How’s everyone doing?” he called into the crack of the door. “We’ll get you out in no time.”
He opened his bag of tools and made a few adjustments. And just as he pressed one of the tools into the elevator, I had the great sense to take a photograph. The camera flash went off in a blinding light.
Kevin jumped back and looked, well, shocked.
“I thought I had been electrocuted!” he said, laughing.
I remember Walter’s deep chuckle.
“Well, if this had been the case you wouldn’t be here.”
And a few seconds later, the elevator door magically opened and a young man with plastic shopping bags stepped out, a bit sheepishly, and thanked him.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Kevin said, packing up his tools, as we reversed our trip down the stairs.
I also remember what he wasn’t.
On a midnight tour on New Year’s Eve just before guns began firing from rooftops to signal the start of the new year, a call came over the radio for a man with a shotgun, seated at the top of the stairs of a tenement building. Two patrol cars sped down the block, no lights and sirens as not to alert the potential shooter. Five car doors opened and closed quickly. And everyone raced up the stairs, with me holding up the rear. I remember the sounds of shoes and boots echoing on the old dirty stairs. At least one cop had his gun drawn; I concentrated on not tripping up the stairs and forgot to be afraid. No one had any idea of what to expect, let alone who or what was there in a small, enclosed space at the top. When we reached the summit, the stairwell was empty. A bogus call. We all reversed direction back down the stairs, this time with me in front opening the door, and we were met by a lieutenant, standing in the street, his arms folded, in front of the two patrol cars.
His face was twisted, red with anger.
“What were you thinking?” he shouted. “Did anyone think? You ran up the stairs and that guy could have been standing there with a shotgun. One shot would have taken you all out!”
He was full of fury and fear. Anything that happened on his watch was his responsibility. The four cops looked at the ground. I looked at them. People walked by and looked at all of us.
“You should all know better! And you, too!” he yelled at me.
He shook his head, slammed his car door shut and rode off. The other sector car pulled away. The cops I rode with mumbled something about the lieutenant and moved to get into the car.
“Uh, the keys are locked in,” the driver said, embarrassed.
In less than 10 minutes, the fireworks and gunshots were expected. We looked around nervously and one cop called on the radio for a car with a slim jim to open the door.
When we sat back in the patrol car, the cops complained about the lieutenant. Embarrassed in front of each other and in front of the people in the neighborhood and me, they cursed him, until shots were fired and there were more important things for them to worry about.
Kevin would never have spoken to anyone in the way that lieutenant did. He would have been first on the scene, organized the group and taken the lead. I asked him about the scenario a few days later.
“Yeah, I heard about it,” I remember him saying. “That wasn’t smart. The lieutenant was right. He was scared, too. The next time, take a step back and look at the situation. You don’t have to rush in right away. In those few minutes, you don’t lose time. You gain perspective. Think about it.”
That’s a lesson I carry with me. Still.
I recently learned he spent time at Ground Zero and imagine him digging with his bare hands to reach the missing men and women. The night before September 11, I gave a reading from the book at the Borders in the World Trade Center, tapping the building with my fingers, like touching an old friend. I lost track of Kevin and most others after September 11. The world changed, we all changed. People were promoted, transferred, retired, moved away.
Over the years, I wondered what happened to Kevin O’Rourke. I thought of looking him up and then got busy, thought of him again, forgot and thought again. You know, life gets in the way. I hesitated, not sure where he was and how to reach him or Stacey. I heard that he taught scuba diving at Floyd Bennett Field. I asked a friend in the Police Department to look him up for me but he never did. I figured at some point we’d bump into each other. And so it goes.
He wrote to me in June, finding me on Facebook.
Hey there...saw a few fights last week at an Army Garrison in Italy and thought about you..developed an interesting skill set and am now working with the Army...heading to Afghanistan shortly...be there 12 months...taking the fun out of jihad one bad guy at a time...howyoudoin??
I was so thrilled to hear from him that I wrote a couple of chatty emails, forgetting that a man in the middle of a war has no time to answer questions to catch up on the last ten years or so. I figured when he had a break I might hear back and perhaps at some point, I’d meet an old friend again to catch up on old times. I looked at the photos on his Facebook page and kept returning to one of Kevin and his two children, Kevin and Kaitlyn. Something in their faces struck me as all three faced the camera and the photographer, a sense of contentment and happiness. You can see it. It was love between a father and his son and daughter, and children and their father.
I’m afraid that when my words stop, this means that the story will end. And I don’t want it to.
I sat in a local coffee shop, flipping through the news alerts. And there it was.
The ones who take risks are the ones lost first. I kept hoping that it was a mistake, that it was the wrong Kevin O’Rourke. I go back to that photograph again and the sadness of two children who will grow up not knowing him as we did, what he will miss out on and what they have lost.
His remains were being returned to his family in Florida, I read. I hate the word remains. We are what remains.
I found out more about Kevin’s life from a Facebook page that a dear friend of his set up, with photographs and memories and snapshots and scrapbooks of others’ lives with Kevin.
Steve Mona posted a message on the page that shows Kevin’s humanity and concern for others.
This story was related by Ret. PAPD Lt. Bill Keegan: Kevin was one of the founding members of H.E.A.R.T. 9/11. He responded to the Ninth Ward of New Orleans on our first deployment in December of 2007 following Hurricane Katrina. It was Kevin who decided that the twelve homes we completed in one week wouldn't be ready for the families until each had a Christmas tree in the family room. That's Kevin: a tough guy with a big heart. Kevin led teams into Port Au Prince, Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake. His knowledge and expertise were critical as we navigated a very dangerous terrain with a devastated frightened population. The safety of the teams that Kevin led was never in doubt.
Kevin, I learned, retired from the NYPD in 2003. He and Stacey moved to Hernando, Florida, was involved in the home renovation and landscaping business, loved riding his Harley and scuba diving. I read that he decided to use his police training to work in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"He was just a patriot and wanted to be there with the guys to help out where he could," a good friend of his said in a local newspaper article. "We tried to talk him out of it, but he just wasn't going to change his mind."
At the end of his e-mails, Kevin always added: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Thinking about him, he loved to fix things and perhaps he thought he could somehow fix things by being in Afghanistan. He cared about all of us and wanted to make it right. Time passes whether you do anything or not. And Kevin did much more in 52 years than so many other people have.
I walked to Good Shepherd Church in my Inwood neighborhood of upper Manhattan and where a cross made of beams from the World Trade Center sits in the grass on Isham Street. Pressing switches to light the memorial candles, I didn’t stop until every single one was lit. The ones with the working bulbs shimmered in the half-light. I poked a dollar for each into the slot and left a tip and thought of Kevin, who let me into part of his life for a short time. And then it was over.
Walking down to the dock at Dyckman Street next to La Marina and where the Hudson River meets the fishermen who catch bluefish and crabs and look for the legendary sturgeon called Big Joe in the cold waters of winter, I chatted about the day’s catch and told one about Kevin.
I tore a piece of paper from my notebook with a message I had written the night before. One fisherman rooted around and found just the right rock. Another offered fishing line. Another used the fishing line to secure the paper with all sorts of fancy knots.
Weighing my options, I asked a fisherman to throw it into the water. With my poor aim and girlish throw, it would likely only drop a couple of feet or hit someone.
He took a step back and with the rock firmly in his right hand, reeled back like a professional outfielder, and threw my note into the middle of the Hudson.
“May he rest in peace,” he said.
The rock landed with a splash and my words sank beneath the murky waters, ripples moving out further and further out and disappearing into the past.
I thought of Kevin again, pulling up in his patrol car, and waving, asking again how everything was going. Then the car pulled away and he was gone.
(Originally published on October 10, 2012)
(Originally published on October 10, 2012)