As a child, Phillip McKee ’94 was a “classic bookworm” who hated to sweat.
“His idea of sports was to start a bowling league at his school,” said his father Phillip McKee Sr. “And that was mainly because [the bowling alley] was air-conditioned.”
At Yale, McKee was not known as a daredevil. While he was an involved student and did plenty of volunteering, he considered himself “averse to risks,” politely declining when some friends once tried to convince him to go sky-diving.
But a few years later — on the morning of September 11, 2001 — McKee, now an Arlington, Virginia firefighter, found himself struggling through walls of smoke, smack in the middle of what seemed an uncontrollable fire at the Pentagon, the worst he had ever seen.
“I’ve never seen a fire that big, and I’ve seen my share of fires,” he said. “No one had ever seen one like that — not even the old veterans [firefighters]. Nothing prepared us for that.”
That morning, McKee was at the firehouse watching news coverage of the World Trade Center attack when he was dispatched to a small kitchen fire nearby. When his truck arrived, the homeowner had already extinguished the fire, but as he left the house, McKee noticed a huge cloud of smoke rising in the south. Minutes later, the call came in that a plane had hit the Pentagon.
Hoping for survivors, McKee was transferred to a paramedic unit and arrived at the Pentagon within ten minutes. The military personnel, he said, had already been evacuated and organized into litter brigades to carry out any injured.
According to McKee, it soon became clear that those few who had survived at the blast site had already been rescued, so McKee was placed back on firefighting duty.
“We kept going in and trying to cool things down, coming out every 45 minutes for new air bottles and a short rest and light food until 8 p.m. that night,” McKee said.
At no point was McKee worried about his own safety. He entered what he calls “duty mode.”
“[The danger] didn’t occur to me,” he said. “I knew what I had to do, and I blocked out everything else.”
At one point, McKee and a couple other firefighters were searching for a way to get to the building’s burning roof when they stumbled into a vacant office. The men noticed a printer in the corner of the room, still warm from use. On the printer lay color copies of photographs from the World Trade Center attack that morning.
“I just wonder what that person [printing out the photographs] was thinking — when the plane hit just as he was looking at those pictures,” said McKee.
The World Trade Center attacks were on the firefighters’ minds all day as they tried to get the Pentagon fires under control. The next day, McKee spent his 12-hour shift searching for hot spots and setting up lights for investigators. At the station, instead of a normal afternoon together performing drills, most of the men sat alone in their bunks, trying to make sense of the past 48 hours.
McKee felt the best way for him to recover was to work even harder. But when he called to request overtime, his chief noticed a suspicious cough in his voice. He ordered McKee to the doctor, who diagnosed him with smoke inhalation, as well as a sprained ankle that McKee had been trying to conceal.
Forced to spend the past two weeks at home on sick leave, McKee has not been idle. He has organized two fundraisers for the victims of the World Trade Center attack and attended remembrance services. He now believes he has begun the healing process.
This was far from McKee’s first exposure to tragedy; he saw four firefighters die during a fire in Washington, DC a few years before.
“I know from that experience that recovery takes a long time,” he said.
If anything, his experience at the Pentagon has strengthened his love for his work.
“Firefighting has forever changed my nature — I’m happy for that,” McKee said. “It’s enlivened and enriched my life.”
At the time of his graduation from Yale, nothing seemed less likely to McKee than a career as a fire fighter. But three years ago, a friend who volunteered with the local fire department persuaded Mckee to go along with him and watch.
“He wanted to convince me that it wasn’t dangerous,” McKee said. “A call came in for a roaring house fire within two hours. I was terrified.”
Nonetheless, McKee went back to observe again, and he became hooked on the idea of helping people while overcoming his own fears. He signed up for a volunteer position, and last December was hired fulltime in Arlington.
This was not the future his parents had envisioned.
“At first we thought, why did we go through all that effort to send him to Yale for him to run into burning buildings?” his father said. “But we don’t try to figure him out. He’s happy, and that’s all any parent can ask for.”
McKee’s mother, Cynthia McKee, said he was always an unpredictable, precocious child. So in some ways, his career choice was not a shock.
“Right after college, he wanted to be a priest,” she recalled. “We’re Baptist, so I thought this was strange. So when he told us [he was going to be a firefighter], we said, ‘that’s great! So normal,'” she said. “He’s the best-educated firefighter in the world, and he’s happy.”
Keith Truelove ’94, McKee’s close friend while at Yale, said he is not too surprised at his friend’s career choice.
“He’s always been a mentally focused person. He hasn’t changed,” said Truelove. “He’s just channeling a lot more energy into what he loves: giving back to the community.”
The profession does have its perks. McKee serves on the Board of Directors of the Yale Club of Washington, D.C., and says his job makes for some interesting conversation.
“At our meetings, the crowd is networking, asking what everyone does for a living — it’s fun to see the looks on their faces when I tell them,” he said. “But you shouldn’t listen to others’ measures of success. This feels right for me.”