Friday, September 11, 2009

Keith G. Fairben: Still riding

Think of Keith, and by all accounts from those who know and love him, laughter is the first thing that comes to mind. Laughter, loyalty to family and friends, service to his community. These attributes are what continue to define Keith: beloved son, cherished friend, respected EMS professional, and of course, 9/11 hero.

Keith Fairben
was 24 years old on September 11, 2001. The only child of Ken and Diane, Keith grew up knowing that service to others matters.

Diane was a school teacher and father Ken was a funeral director, who was (and is still) also active in the local volunteer Fire Dept.

From the NY Times following 9/11:

Keith Fairben: Big, Fast and Reassuring
Published: Friday, December 7, 2001

Keith Fairben was the adrenaline kid, always on the run, said his mother, Diane. He would get home from his job as a paramedic for New York Presbyterian Hospital, get on the cellphone, the home phone and his e- mail all at once, and then field calls from all his friends as they decided what movie to see that night or where to have dinner. Sometimes, to assuage the tension of his job, Mr. Fairben, 24, and his fellow paramedics would play practical jokes on their supervisor, Jack Delaney, one time smearing grease on his office doorknob so he couldn't get in.

But when Mr. Fairben was on the job he was in command, big and reassuring. And he was fast. Records of the Fire Department's Emergency Medical Service show that he and his partner, Mario Santoro, arrived at the World Trade Center within minutes after the first plane hit. They immediately got to work tending to the injured, running in and out of the building....(go here for more of their write up.)

Keith looked to his dad as his role model as he was growing up. Diane says that Ken "is a funny guy," and it is obvious that Keith takes after him. Always with a smile, ready for a good laugh, Keith was always there for his friends, ready to help anyone. Says Diane: Any friend of Keith's knew that his door was always open for them. From his dad Keith also got his finely tuned sense of justice; like his dad, INjustice made Keith very angry.

A 'middle of the road' student according to his mother, making people laugh was what Keith was really good at. This child, born two weeks overdue, according to Diane: "... was all boy. Into boy stuff..." to the 6'4" gentle giant; there was nobody who met Keith who will ever forget him. In school he played little league, and was on softball teams right up to 9/11.

One of Keith's school principals told mom Diane:
...he always stopped and said 'Hello' to me. That was rare...

Although the family was not, is not, regular churchgoers, Keith was raised in the Catholic faith, within the church community. As Diane tells it, by the time Keith came along, kids were no longer taught to fear God, or purgatory, but rather that God is a loving God. To demonstrate the difference between the Catholic church she was raised in, and the church that Keith was taught in, she laughs when she tells of Keith's first confession:

I wasn't sure what a seven year old could possibly have to confess - apart from a messy room, which was a Keith-ism right up to 9/11! On the day of his first confession, Keith went into a room with the priest (unlike the little curtained cubicles I grew up with.) When he came out, I asked him how it was. His reply? 'Oh, it was okay. We talked about baseball.'

Keith's grandparents and great grandparents lived mere minutes away, and were a huge part of Keith's childhood. Within the close knit extended family, and the community, Keith grew up living the values of loyalty, compassion. Throughout his childhood and on into high school - his whole life - nobody ever had a bad word to say about Keith.

He didn't have a steady girlfriend, but lots of girls that were friends. As VJ, an EMS colleague and a family friend who knew Keith from his diaper days - saw the boy grow to manhood - tells it: 'Keith was always a gentleman, gentle-man.' At his funeral, Diane says, there were lots of young women present, who all thought the world of Keith. Diane told a few stories of the lengths that Keith would go to for any one of his friends. [Brat note to Keith: You can quit rolling your eyes there. hehehehe] As he grew up, Keith and his friends could always be found hanging out at the Fairben home, Diane always happy to know where they were - safe.

One only has to read the messages left by Keith's friends on, to get a true sense of Keith from an early age, as many friends share stories of different fun times they all had together. Just two:

From Cindy
. I remember the very first time I met him--on my wedding day. . . little blondy in a powder blue suit sporting a big, wide,toothless grin, giggling, how he grew to a teenager, full of life, driving his sporty black car, to a tall, handsome, hulking grown man-- a man with compassion, kindness, and such bravery--oh how lucky and so blessed I am to have known him

And Erin
I miss talking to you everyday. You could put a smile on my face in the darkest of days. I totally miss having that!! You had a special gift. To make people laugh...

And make people laugh he did, for his whole life it seems.

Mom Diane:

He had a wicked sense of humor - sharper than mine - he was just funny with the one liners! He loved nothing better than to be with his friends having fun. Keith had his dad's temperament and was pretty funny, pretty sarcastic.

Keith knew from an early age what he wanted to do with his life. With so many role models within the local fire and EMS community, it was natural that Keith would follow that path.
And he was a natural at it.

On the job, Keith was the total professional. Originally an Emergency Medical Technician, he then went into further training to become a Paramedic. An intensive 13 month course, taught at a local hospital, the Paramedic qualification is the equivalent of the first two years of medical school. Keith had achieved that qualification early in 2001, at the top of his class.

VJ, a fellow pre hospital care provider (EMT), tells a funny story, which, from all I have read and heard, was quintessential Keith:

Keith was a student in Paramedic School. We had both responded as volunteers in Floral Park to an ambulance run for whatever (difficulty breathing, perhaps). I was the chauffeur (driver, whatever, 'chauffeur' is on the big rig). Anyway, we get the female patient loaded in the bus (ambulance) and I, being the senior advanced life support provider on the crew, asked Keith if he was ok 'teching', meaning managing the patient enroute to the hospital without me over his shoulder. In true form, he said, 'Yeah, I'm fine'. So I told him if he had a problem just yell. Well, yell he did...

Keith: VJ, Can you come back here?
VJ: Why?
Keith: can you just come back here!?
VJ: What's the matter?
Keith: Can you just come back here!!

So I pull the truck over, climb in the back, and he asks me 'What's this'? I look at his intravenous line and there's blood pumping up the tubing toward the bag. HMMM....

I tell him to 'D/C it' (disconnect it) and he queries, 'Why'? I reply, 'Just DC it', I'll explain it to you later'. Obediently, he makes it right.

Short story long, we get the patient to the ED alive & kickin', but little Keith has a list full of questions. Bottom line was that in all my years in pre-hospital emergency care I'd never seen anyone stick an artery. Bottom line: it's a NO NO that I've only read about but never seen. Leave it to Keith to teach me something new. We laughed all the way home. No harm, no foul, but he showed me something I'd never seen before, even having worked the streets in NYC. That kid was one of a kind, working on a full house!!

You're supposed to stick veins. ... arteries pump oxygenated blood to the body; veins return blood to the heart. It was the forceful RED blood pumping UP the tubing that made it clear that he had stuck an artery (he vehemently denied being capable of such a mistake all the way home). I had to reassure him that it was not a life or death mistake. I also got my share of grief for allowing him to 'solo' as a student, but that's the degree of confidence I had in him. Keith is a natural, no matter where he is….

Today, VJ stresses that in this case, the student taught the veteran something he had never seen before. Says a lot about their relationship, that on this occasion, the teacher was more than comfortable being taught something he had learned, from the student. [This seems a good place to put in a short video that I found. I asked both Diane and VJ what song most says 'Keith' to them. They both said the same song:

"Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond. It seems that this song holds special meaning and was included in many a "good time' at the firehouse. [Sorry guys! That's all I could think to call]
when Ken and I hear it, I swear he's there with us. we can't hear that song without singing the "other" lyrics !

And VJ's response to 'Sweet Caroline'?:

I'm laughing hysterically knowing full well the alternative lyrics to Sweet boys favorite!... ...the chorus remains the same. It usually happened after Keith has two or three vodka & cranberries...but the WHOLE house would sing along at the top of our lungs. He had a way of making you smile, and laugh, and hurt so good. I love that kid. Larger than life with a smile that never left his face.

So, just for you guys (and yes, I am SURE Keith is laughing right along with you!)

Sorry, Keith! That's the best I could do, but trust me, I have heard some of those lyrics.. hahaha..]

More thoughts from VJ about Keith:

Well respected by his colleagues, 1st Lieutenant Keith Fairben was seen as a rising star in his field. He was dynamic, motivated, dedicated. He was on the short list as a Rising Star. He had a perpetual smile, contagious laugh, and a gentleness about him that just attracted people (keep in mind, he was a BIG boy). No bad words were ever spoken of him... He never took himself too seriously, but he was absolutely focused on his objective. His work ethic and dedication to service was flawless. He was (IS) the best. I keep him with me everyday in mind and spirit.

Of everyone who knows Keith, nobody seems surprised that as soon as the call went out that there was a disaster happening at the WTC, Keith and his partner, Mario Santoro, were two of the first on scene.

.Records of the Fire Department's Emergency Medical Service show that he and his partner, Mario Santoro, arrived at the World Trade Center within minutes after the first plane hit. They immediately got to work tending to the injured, running in and out of the building. (NY Times)

Diane tells a funny story about Keith:

Keith was not one to move fast. He was a big guy, 6'4, and very broad. We used to live about 2 blocks from the engine firehouse he and his dad belong to. Ken would run the 2 blocks. Keith, not wanting to waste his energy, would get in his car and drive 2 blocks. It was funny because, Ken would beat him every time, and be waiting on the truck as Keith pulled up in the car. Typical Keith.

On the morning of 9/11, Keith talked to his father briefly:

"It was Keith's love and passion," said his father, who called him on his cell phone at 9:10, minutes after he heard about the plane crash. "I knew he would be there," he said. The 6-foot-3, 240 pound medic loved helping people, he added. He wasn't surprised when his son answered the phone and said: "Dad, I'm really busy. I'm at the World Trade Center. I can't talk now." Be safe, his father said. "Call us later." (source: Newsweek, September 20, 2001)

That was the last anyone spoke to Keith. No trace was found for six months, and he was one of only 180 whose bodies were found complete. On the Thursday following 9/11, Ken went down to ground zero to try and find his son, but had to return home without Keith, something which still troubles him to this day.

Newsweek carried a story, which said, in part:

Ken Fairben and his fellow firefighters drove into the city to help in the efforts. They spent seven hours digging in the rubble.

"I went in expecting to bring Keith home," Fairben said..."The toughest thing was turning around after seven hours and walking away."... "I know that when they find him, he will be with someone. He wouldn't abandon anyone," Fairben said.."

Ken's prediction turned out to be accurate. When they found Keith he was not alone. He was in what should have been the lobby of the north tower with Moira Ann Smith, the only female NYPD officer to lose her life that day.

Diane last saw Keith the Monday evening of 9/10. He was in the kitchen talking with her as she made dinner. As they discussed what she was making, ("Keith was very much a 'meat and potatoes guy like his dad",) she asked him if he was working the next day. He said he was. As he left to go visit across the street with a family friend, also their family doctor, their last words to each other were: "See you later."

The morning of 9/11, Diane was in her classroom in Queens, New York. From her room she could see the smoke of the WTC and left the classroom to try and talk to Keith on his cell phone. She got no answer, and even though she tried repeatedly throughout that day, and left numerous messages, his cell phone was never found. Diane says today that even as she left repeated messages for Keith, she knew. She knew he would not be returning her calls.

Going home, going home,
I'm just going home.
Quiet-like, slip away-
I'll be going home.
It's not far, just close by;
Jesus is the Door;
Work all done, laid aside,
Fear and grief no more.
Friends are there, waiting now.
He is waiting, too.
See His smile! See His hand!
He will lead me through.

Morning Star lights the way;
Restless dream all done;
Shadows gone, break of day,
Life has just begun.
Every tear wiped away,
Pain and sickness gone;
Wide awake there with Him!
Peace goes on and on!
Going home, going home,

(Find all the words for this, which was played at Keith's funeral, here. For a YouTube video of another version of this, go here)

Although Keith was not found until March 2002, in October, 2001 there was a memorial service. President Bush petitioned Congress so they approved the giving of the Medal of Valor to the family of every service personnel who gave their lives on 9/11. The Medal of Valor is the civilian equivalent of the Medal of Honor for our military, and Diane and Ken went to the award ceremony.

Many awards have been named to honour Keith:

Community Dedicates Lieutenant Keith G. Fairben Way

Said to be rescuing someone amidst the rubble during the World Trade Center terrorist attacks when he was found, Keith G. Fairben of Floral Park became a hero like so many others that fateful day. Keith volunteered for Floral Park's Reliance Engine Company and also served as a paramedic for Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.

Diane and Ken Fairben, escorted by Reliance Engine Company Captain Lou D'Amore, reveal a commemorative sign in memory of their son, Keith, who lost his life while rescuing others during the World Trade Center attacks September 11, 2001. Photo by Carisa Keane

On Oct. 17, three years later, neighbors, friends, family, fellow firefighters and dignitaries watched as his parents, Diane and Ken, unveiled a commemorative sign, Lieutenant Keith G. Fairben Way at the corner of Holland Avenue and Jericho Turnpike to salute his fearless passion to help others.

Captain Lou D'Amore of Reliance Engine Company thanked all who attended the joyous yet somber occasion. "Keith was a fellow firefighter as well as a good friend to many. He was someone who always did as much as he could between the fire department and Presbyterian Hospital. His nature was to help people, just as he did on 9/11. Today, having a street sign dedicated to Keith is a special way of saying 'thank you' for all that he did and a reminder to all of us every time we see it."

(source: Floral Park Dispatch)

There is a page on FaceBook honouring our EMS heroes, who gave their lives to help others on that day:

EMS: The forgotten casualties of 9/11

EMS: The forgotten casualties of 9/11

Quilts like the one below also ensure Keith's name and place, within his community, remain writ large, forever. There is a classroom in the hospital that Keith trained which has been named after him. Ken and Diane Fairben also founded a scholarship for aspiring paramedics. The tuition for the intensive course is thousands of dollars, and the Fairben scholarship has already seen three paramedics able to take the course, and graduate. All sorts of fundraisers take place, including the upcoming Annual Keith Fairben Old Fashioned Tournament. They have a FaceBook page too: here. On an ongoing basis, there are events (like a blood drive) that ensure that Keith lives on, continues, in his community service.

In the Floral Park fire station, there is a another constant reminder of Keith. His gear has been preserved behind glass, with a plaque. His locker is at the end of the row of lockers, and his presence is felt and acknowledged every single day. Keith's high school also has a permanent memorial to him. Keith was the only alumnus from his school to be lost on 9/11.

This picture of Keith is actually part of a bigger picture. Taken in April 2001, it is the only formal (uniformed) picture ever taken of Keith, according to my source. [And yes, I LOVE this picture!] In the original, Keith and his mum and dad are together. And they still are together today. Keith - all these years on - is still very much a part of the lives of his family, and others who love him.

At the site, many of his friends talk to Keith as if he is right there listening to them, having an ongoing conversation with them, just as he always has. In one note, a friend tells Keith that a mutual friend of theirs has just passed on, and asks Keith to 'look out for him and show him the ropes.' As always, Keith's friends know he is still watching over them all. Mum Diane is also always aware of Keith around her. She tells me a funny story of one time she and Ken were working together in an ambulance. After 9/11, Diane also qualified as an EMT, and often went on EMS calls with Ken. She says that one day she turned to Ken:

...I can just see Keith rolling his eyes, and saying "What are YOU two doing in MY ambulance?"... Yep, every time I was on an EMS call, I knew he was with me, rolling his eyes!...

THAT, to this outsider, is the essence of Keith. Looking out for those he loves, and laughing at them, with them. I learned a new expression during the course of my research for this tribute profile for Keith: "Still riding..."

VJ recently posted a video on FB, which he says is exactly how he felt the day we all lost Keith:

I asked him why. His reply was something like that for him the music did die that day. But, he says, Keith always rides with him. VJ tells me that he has Keith's prayer card and a picture of Keith on the visor in his truck. Keith does - indeed - always ride with VJ.

VJ says:

I know that kid is with me everyday. I miss that kid. I love that kid and I miss him so much.

Another one of Keith's friends also leaves a message on the site. ( The messages on this site, really are the measure of the impact that Keith continues to have on everyone who knew/knows him. Take the time to go 'meet' Keith, and some of those who love him):

September 11, 2003

Hey Keith,

It's 2 years and it seems like yesterday. I cant help but smile when I remember you. Remember when I convinced you to break into one of the buses to get Pepe's address book so that Adriana could throw him a surprise party? Well!, when he caught us -and you started running with the address book under your shirt- and the loose pages started falling out ... blowing in the wind in the ambulance bay....

we were so caught. ha ha...

Your picture hangs in the Emergency Room and I see you and think of you EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Happy 2nd Anniversary in heaven. You are the brightest star in the sky,
love Kim...


Keith's dad, Ken, also leaves messages on the site, and talks to Keith often:

...Just wanted to let you know, but I know that you are watching over us and already knew this. Miss you every day, Miss you sooooo much
Love, Dad

At one point during my research for this tribute, I admitted to VJ that I have cried more than a few tears about Keith. His reply? : long as they're happy tears...Keith would not want it any other way!...

And that is the Keith I have come to know. Mum Diane tells me that even as everyone calls her Keith a hero, to her Keith is her precious, laughing, compassionate, loyal, loving son. As she put it: To us , he was the kid who couldn't keep his room clean ! She laughs as she tells me that. She and I talked about the term "hero". To her, a hero is 'an ordinary person, who does extraordinary acts in extraordinary circunstances.' To me, that IS Keith.

As with all who have lost loved ones, the comment I hear repeated often is: I don't want people to forget them.

I was not blessed to know Keith while he was here. Everything I have learned about him, from those who love him - and acquaintances alike - accentuate my sense of loss that I did NOT get to know him then. However, through the grace and genorousity of Diane, and VJ - who opened their hearts to me - I have been given a glimpse of this amazing son, colleague, friend, hero. It has been my honour to be allowed to share even this small part of Keith's heart on this 9/11 anniversary. [Thank YOU, Keith! Smiles]

I will ALWAYS remember, and honour, Keith. Who he IS will live on in many hearts - forever. Love never dies.

Keith Fairben: He really IS the brightest star in the heavens.

"Still riding..."

[Addendum: Keith's dad Ken shared his memories for our 2010 tribute column. You can find it here: Keith Fairben: A beloved American son. ]

(c) Diane and Ken Fairben


Diane said...

I have no words. Thank you. You have captured the essence of our son, his heart, his values, his love of life. He packed a lot into his 24 years, and wouldn't have done it any other way.
Diane and Ken

Doc said...

I have had this page up as long as I have had a blog - 8 years. A few years it was the index on 9/11 unfortunately life conspired to prevent this the last few years.

A search of my archives will reveal how I feel about the forgotten EMS casualties from this day.

Unknown said...

I wear a bracelet wearing Keith's name proud on my wrist. He accepted me in to Reliance as a Probe and took me under his wing. It was a pleasure to have known him and I will never forget him.
Anthony D.

TracieH - Soldiers' Angels said...

Nice tribute. Keith sounds like he was a great guy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing! He was an awesome man...

K-Dubyah said...

Brat Dahling,

Thank you so much for inviting me to come meet and know Keith. To keep his life of service alive in the hearts and minds of those of us who are extremely grateful that God made men such as he. You done good...

Again, thank you!


Unknown said...

Beautiful tribute.

Alicia said...

What a beautiful, wonderful tribute. Thank you!

I honor Christopher Paul Slattery.

One Ticked Chick said...

Thank you for this beautiful tribute, and for bringing us Keith's wonderful story. All of these tributes are so moving. Today I honor Sgt. John Coughlin and Lt. Edward D'Atri.


What an incredible, thorough tribute to a pretty amazing guy.

I honor Scott Schertzer on my blog:

Barbara said...

What a beautiful tribute!

I honor Joseph Roberto


Michelle McGhee said...

Written so well, I feel as if I am missing someone I never got to meet. You breathe life into the words you write.

Casey Cloud said...

Brat, Diane, and Ken-
What a wonderful moving tribute to Keith...Rest assured that he is never forgotten <3

Jenny said...

Hi Diane,
Thank you for keeping Keith's spirit alive. He has done many things to help us and protect us. I am greatful for his services and to have been touched by loving people as yourself. Both you and Ken have changed my life! Your great people and so was your son!

Northstar96sc said...

Wow Brat this is really, really good. You did Keith a solid and captured so much of him. Excellent tribute! He will not be forgotten.