Gympie firefighter Rob Frey.
Gympie firefighter Rob Frey. Craig Warhurst

Helmet a piece of 9/11 history

TEARS flowed at a ceremony in Los Angeles when Australian firefighters presented a firefighting helmet to the son of an elite New York firefighter, Kevin Dowdell, who was killed in the collapse of the World Trade Centre buildings on September 11, 2001.

The tale of how the helmet, once owned by Kevin Dowdell, landed in 25-year-old James Dowdell's hands is so extraordinary it could one day be turned into a movie.

In 1998, Australian military personnel went to Manhattan to train with the New York Fire Department's elite crews as preparation for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

At the end of the exercise the Aussie military members handed the the New Yorkers a slouch hat, while the Australians received Kevin Dowdell's relic, battle-scarred NYFD leather firefighting hat.

When the World Trade Centre buildings collapsed as a result of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Kevin Dowdell was inside attempting to rescue office workers.

His body was never found.

Fast forward to Gympie, Queensland, just a few weeks ago.

Gympie firefighter Rob Frey, one of 16 Australian firefighters embarking on a charity run from Los Angeles to New York, sat down for an interview with Gympie's local newspaper to talk about the run, which starts on Thursday and ends in Manhattan on September 11.

A Gympie local read the story and thought it might be nice to drop around to the fire station to show Mr Frey a NYFD hat her son Warwick Penrose, a former member of the Australian military who trained in anti-terrorism with the NYFD in 1998 had.

In an extraordinary coincidence, Mr Frey noticed the signature on the NYFD hat matched the surname of one of the 16 American firefighters joining the Aussies on the LA to New York run and it was confirmed that the runner, James Dowdell, was the son of the hat's owner, fallen firefighter Kevin Dowdell.

The find was kept secret from James Dowdell and his mother, Rose Ellen, until Tuesday night at a ceremony held at the Los Angeles residence of Australian Consul-General Chris de Cure.

With tears running down his face, Mr Frey told the story of how the helmet found its way from Gympie to LA and finally back to the Dowdells.

“I'm in total shock. This is one of the greatest things ever,” James Dowdell, who was inspired by his late father to join the NYFD, said, wiping tears from his face.

“It shows that Kevin is still looking over us,” Rose Ellen said.

James Dowdell said he will be taking the helmet on the 7038km run from LA to New York for inspiration and would then place it inside a glass case at his New York home.

The Australian and US firefighters begin the run on Thursday at Santa Monica Pier.

They will take turns running and money raised will go to various charities, including funds for the families of firefighters killed on the job.

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