On the morning of 9/11, “Saturday Night Live” star Colin Jost’s family was doing a lot of live updating — but not the satirical kind.
They were worried about Jost’s mother, Dr. Kerry Kelly, who had left a patient’s bedside on Staten Island to race to downtown Manhattan after hearing that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center’s north tower. Colin was then a sophomore at Harvard University; his younger brother was in class at a Staten Island high school, and his father was at home.
They feared the worst, according to Jost in his new memoir, “A Very Punchable Face” (Crown), out Tuesday, about his middle-class upbringing on SI, life at Harvard and his storybook-smooth hiring at “SNL” when he was only 23.
With phones out of order, Jost frantically emailed his father from Cambridge: “Dad! What’s going on?? Are you home? Assuming mom is OK???”
Dr. Kelly was the chief medical officer for the New York City Fire Department — and ended up being the longest-serving chief of any department in city history — according to her son. Some nights she’d tuck her boys into bed on Grymes Hill, a neighborhood populated with their cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, and tell them she was off to a “huge fire in the Bronx.”
FDNY searching for survivors among the rubble at ground zero.Freelance
This time Kelly was off to the biggest fire of her life, one that would almost kill her — and take 343 NYC firefighters.
In a tragic irony, one of them was Scott Davidson, the father of Jost’s future “SNL” castmate and fellow Staten Islander Pete Davidson.
The fact that Kelly drove right up to the burning towers before they collapsed, got out of her car and started to treat injured firefighters at the harrowing scene is partly why Jost titled one chapter, “Why I Love My Mom.”
Jost is the longtime head writer of “SNL” and co-anchor of the show’s “Weekend Update” and he’s also engaged to actress Scarlett Johansson. But in the self-deprecating “Punchable,” he’s clearly still close to his Staten Island roots and proud of his family’s four generations in the FDNY. He mentions Johansson briefly in the book and has said in interviews that he prefers to keep their romance private.
Jost recalled that the first fireman his mother treated at the scene was Danny Suhr, who had been setting up a response center at the south tower when he was hit by a falling body that crushed his skull. Nicknamed “Captain America,” Suhr was the first firefighter to die on Sept. 11, 2001.
The collapsing World Trade Center towers on 9/11.AP
Jost writes that, as the ambulance carrying Suhr pulled away, Capt. Hank Cerasoli, who would become Kelly’s guardian angel that day, turned to the doctor and said, “The building is falling.” Kelly replied, “What building?” Then she looked up and the first tower was crumbling toward her. Cerasoli yelled, “RUN!!!”
According to Jost, they couldn’t outrun it. Cerasoli and his mom ducked into an alcove of the World Financial Center building across the street and pressed against the wall. “Everything around them turned black. All they heard was noise and all they felt was debris piling up on top of them. [My mom] said she was waiting to die.”
Minutes passed, some of the black smoke from the debris cleared, and Cerasoli and Dr. Kelly saw a sliver of light. They knew they had a chance to go save others. But just then, Kelly looked down at her feet and realized she was wearing sandals.
“I’m changing my shoes,” she told a shocked Cerasoli. “I just survived death. I’ve had it. I’m getting out of these sandals.”
She got her sneakers out of her car, changed into shorts and a T-shirt, and strapped on a borrowed fire helmet. Then she and Cerasoli walked back toward the second tower, back into the storm, looking for people to help.
Kelly and a firefighter named Mike Shepherd dragged firemen out of the debris and tended to their wounds and roamed the streets looking for ambulances or, at least, medical supplies and bandages. Just before they were about to break into a dentist’s office, they heard a terrible noise. Shepherd grabbed the doctor’s hand and they started running. The second tower was about to fall.
Shepherd helped her through the door of a lobby as debris from the second tower hurtled past.
As the day wore on, Dr. Kelly set up a triage center in a nearby Duane Reade for all the injured first responders she expected to arrive — but then they never did. She witnessed the afternoon collapse of 7 World Trade Center and finally closed down the triage center at 9 p.m., 12 hours after leaving Staten Island for lower Manhattan.
Jost’s dad updated him in an email he has kept from that day.
“Mom’s OK!” Colin’s dad wrote. “She did get caught in the secondary collapse but dug herself out and is OK — wow!”