Hyannis Fire Captain Tom Kenney, who saved lives and taught others how to do so, too, dies at 65
Of all the frightening places Hyannis Fire Captain Tom Kenney bravely strode into during his storied career as a paramedic and firefighter, nothing compared to the crater at Ground Zero in New York City, where he arrived just hours after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“They should have told us, ‘Hey, you’re going to the end of the world,’ because that’s what it looked like when we got there, and nobody was prepared for that,” he would say later for a documentary directed by his brother John.
That’s saying something, because to those who knew him, Mr. Kenney seemed prepared for anything. With a paramedic partner, he had once even saved the life of a man whose head was pierced, through and through, by a crowbar in a car accident.
On Wednesday, Mr. Kennedy died in his Hyannis home of pancreatic cancer, less than eight months after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 for the community’s Fire Department. He had been diagnosed with the cancer in January.
“My dad, he was the best,” said his daughter Meaghann Kenney. “He was my hero, and then after 9/11, he became everyone else’s hero, too.”
Fire departments everywhere draw generations from single families, but few could claim a pedigree like Mr. Kenney’s. His firefighter father nearly died battling a fire. Both of Mr. Kenney’s grandfathers were firefighters, and his paternal grandfather was seriously injured fighting the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire that killed 492.
“He looked like a fireman,” Mr. Kenney’s daughter said. “He had this signature handlebar mustache and he had this wicked sense of humor. And he loved to work.”
As one of six sons in a firefighter’s family, “Tom knew when was very young what he wanted to do,” said Charles Kenney of Jamaica Plain, the oldest of six Kenney brothers.
“One of the things that captured his imagination was the idea of the rescue,” Charles added. “The idea that you would go and save people in peril, that was amazing to him.”
Mr. Kenney spent his life saving lives. Those he rescued are only one measure of his impact, however. Early on, he began teaching others.
He wrote articles for firefighting publications, led classes and seminars, and with some colleagues formed a company called Heavy Rescue Inc., through which offered instruction throughout New England and beyond.
“He saved a lot of lives by teaching other people how to save lives,” his daughter said.
Mr. Kenney “was a great teacher and trainer, the best I’ve ever worked with,” said Michael Bates, who is operations chief at the Providence Fire Department and worked with him on Heavy Rescue.
“You’d have to start with his intellect. He acted like an average guy, but he was a really smart guy,” Bates added. “I’ve told people he was such a good instructor he could teach medical students brain surgery if you gave him a half hour to prepare.”
With the Hyannis Fire Department, Mr. Kenney served for more than 36 years, until rules forced him to retire upon turning 65. But it’s not much of a stretch to say he had been a firefighter, or in training to be one, from the first day he drew breath to the last.
Thomas Frederick Kenney was born in Boston on Nov. 1, 1953, to Charles C. Kenney Jr. and Anne Barry and grew up in West Roxbury, the third of the six Kenney boys.
In 1959, Charles Jr. was trapped by an explosion while fighting a fire in a seven-story building. During his escape, a ladder melted from the heat and he fell three stories. His injuries were so severe that he received last rites in the hospital while in a coma. Mr. Kenney’s father survived, became a designated historian of the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire, and died, at 90, in 2016.
His mother, Anne, who was a telephone operator before marrying and a Filene’s sales clerk when her boys were older, died in 1974, soon after being diagnosed with cancer.
Mr. Kenney and his brothers grew up in West Roxbury, in a neighborhood with other firefighter families. His brothers were sports fanatics, but “Tom had no interest in that at all. None,” his brother Charles recalled. “He was interested in tools, trucks, fires, firefighting equipment.”
In high school, Mr. Kenney began heading to the fire station each Friday afternoon and staying until Sunday, helping out and riding along to fires, John Kenney of Brooklyn, N.Y., recalled in “Looking for My Brother” — the hour-long documentary John made about his brother’s efforts as one of the first reinforcements to arrive at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks.
Mr. Kenney graduated from Roslindale High School in 1972 and began a public safety career that only ended with his death. He was a volunteer member of the Boston Ambulance Squad, and then was an EMT and a paramedic with Boston EMS. Part of the first paramedic class to graduate from Boston City Hospital, he later joined the Hyannis Fire Department, where he remained until retiring in October, days before turning 65.
“His was a belief in intuition, an ability to walk toward the fire when others run away,” John said in the documentary.
As rescue team manager for Massachusetts Task Force 1, Urban Search & Rescue, he was deployed in 1996 to the Summer Olympics in Atlanta and in 1999 to the Worcester Cold Storage fire.
Mr. Kenney’s first memory of Kathleen Kilday was from when they were schoolchildren. Her family lived across the street from St. Theresa of Avila Church in West Roxbury. “Everyone knew the Kildays,” said his brother Charles, a former Globe reporter.
Kathleen and Tom didn’t really meet, though, until he was with the ambulance service and she was a Boston City Hospital nursing student. During court-ordered busing to desegregate the city’s schools, rescue work was more dangerous than usual. He spotted her at the hospital and requested that she do her training ride-along on one of his runs.
“So sort of their first date was in the back of an ambulance,” said Meaghann, who lives in Cotuit.
Mr. Kenney married Kathleen in 1978, and all during his career “she had to share him,” Meaghann said. “She waited 40 years for him to be all hers, and they never got time together.”
For all his heroism and technical expertise on the job, “he was a million times better at being a dad,” Meaghann said.
And at being a grandfather, too. Her 4-year-old daughter, Flynn, was Mr. Kenney’s only grandchild. “He adored her and she adored him,” Meaghann added. “I think when he retired he thought he was going to be my nanny.”
Kathleen is a hospice nurse, and from the moment Mr. Kenney was diagnosed, “she went right into nurse mode and didn’t leave his side,” Meaghann said.
In addition to his wife, daughter, granddaughter, and two brothers, Mr. Kenney leaves another daughter, Lauren Lynn of Charlotte, N.C.; and three other brothers, Michael and Timothy, both of West Roxbury, and Patrick of Quincy.
A funeral Mass will be said at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville. Burial will be in St. Joseph Cemetery in West Roxbury.
“I’ve always had the desire to be a firefighter,” Mr. Kenney recalled in his brother’s documentary. “I’m sure it had a lot to do with dad and both grandfathers, but it’s just something I always wanted to be.”
The match of man and job couldn’t have been better — for him and his profession.
“I really believe that virtually every day of his professional life, Tom was doing something he truly loved doing,” his brother Charles said. “And how many people can you say that about? He couldn’t be happier, doing that job.”