The third-generation firefighter was just outside the South Tower when it collapsed. He was blown out toward the street, and crawled 200 feet through the blackness until he saw a “bright light.” It was a burning Con Ed gas pipe. Then he “surrendered to the conditions.”
He was found, unconscious, lying amid the twisted steel and crushed concrete near Albany and West streets. He was dragged out only minutes before the North Tower fell.
Shea was off-duty. He had finished a 24-hour tour with Ladder 35 at 7:30 a.m. and could have gone home. But he lingered at his Amsterdam Avenue firehouse, and was packing his gear when the fateful alarm sounded.
“There was an extra seat on the engine,” he recalled.
“I’ll take that, sir,” Shea told his lieutenant.
It wasn’t until the next day, while lying in a Newark hospital bed, that he would learn he was the only one of 13 members of his Upper West Side firehouse to make it out alive.
“I survived through luck — and they did not,” Shea told The Post of the Ladder 35/Engine 40 brothers he still mourns.
This holiday season, the 50-year-old hero celebrated his amazing fortune by giving the gift of life to a stranger — a 59-year-old special-ed teacher from Orange County, Calif., in desperate need of a kidney.
And as if lifted from a Hollywood script, the recipient grew up in New York City, idolizing firemen.
“It’s absolutely a miracle!” a joyous Lois Knudson told The Post. “I will never need another Christmas gift.”
She said she “got chills” when she was told that her life-saving donor was a fellow New Yorker and unlikely survivor of 9/11.
“I don’t think firefighters get the recognition that they’re due. 9/11 was so devastating and so huge. But they are always risking their lives. You don’t hear about what they do on a regular basis.
“He saves lives all the time, that’s what he does,” she said of Shea. “And [now] he saved another New Yorker from across the country.”
Knudson has a degenerative and always fatal kidney disease that runs in her family. Her sister died from it, and her mom succumbed to it at 42 — when Knudson was only 5.
Afraid to pass on the deadly gene, she and her husband Tom decided not to have children. Instead, the couple channeled their love of kids into teaching special-education students for 37 years. Knudson has won five Teacher of the Year awards.
She had been on a waiting list for an organ for four years and on dialysis — “hooked to the machine three days a week for three hours at a time after teaching a full day” — for 15 months when she got the phone call that would change her life on Nov. 21. It was “two days before Thanksgiving.”
The UCLA organ-donation coordinator said, “We found a match for you! A man in his 40s from the Northeast.” Her husband of 30 years “broke down in tears of joy.”
He was interested in signing up for a program that allows living people to donate organs to anonymous individuals. The practice is rare, with only 1 to 2 percent of all living donations — which are far more successful than organs coming from a deceased person — destined for a stranger.
Knudson was eligible for the Shea donation because her niece, Jessica Ellis, was also donating her kidney to a stranger as part of a national “chain” of altruistic donations.
Shea was approved as a potential donor, and by the end of July had an appointment at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center for a battery of medical screenings and even a psychological survey.
The humble, 5-foot-8, 160-pound Shea struggled to explain his altruism to The Post.
“I really don’t know what drives me. I wish I had some great explanation. But the way I look at it, I have an extra kidney and there’s someone out there who definitely needs one,” he said.
Knudson certainly needed one, and finally, she had hope that a match had been found.
“I always knew I would get a kidney,” she said. “But this is a miracle that it’s him. I feel like I got the right person.”
Dr. Sandip Kapur, chief of kidney transplant surgery at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, called Shea a “true hero.”
At 5 a.m. the next day, Dr. Joseph Del Pizzo made a three-inch incision through the belly button to begin the two-hour procedure. At 6:30, the kidney was removed, packaged in a medical cooler, driven to Kennedy Airport, and put on a commercial American Airlines flight to LAX. It was delivered to UCLA Medical Center at 3:30 p.m. West Coast time, where Dr. Jeffrey Veale was standing by.
Thirteen hours after it was harvested, Knudson had a new kidney.