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
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
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
Kevin stuck with me. I saw
a piece of him, and that was at work as a sergeant on patrol in East Harlem
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
I’ll take that,” he spoke into the police radio.
Walter, and I trudged up I-don’t- know-how-many flights of stairs.
okay back there?” Kevin called back.
sure yet,” I responded, winded and perspiring. “I’ll let you know when I get
leaned into the door of the stuck elevator.
everyone doing?” he called into the crack of the door. “We’ll get you out in no
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.
jumped back and looked, well, shocked.
thought I had been electrocuted!” he said, laughing.
remember Walter’s deep chuckle.
if this had been the case you wouldn’t be here.”
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.
what we’re here for,” Kevin said, packing up his tools, as we reversed our trip
down the stairs.
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
“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
“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
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.”
a lesson I carry with me. Still.
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.
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.
Somehow you had the feeling
that he would be here until the end.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
Labels: 23rd Precinct, Afghanistan, Daniel Metcalfe, East Harlem, Emergency Services Unit, ESU, Housing Police, Kevin O'Rourke, NATO, New York City Police Department, NYPD, sergeant