Firefighter Ken Haskell lost two brothers on 9/11. At the funeral for one of them, Rep. Peter King took note of his public speaking ability and composure and eventually invited him to be one of his advisers.
He knew a little about King. The Representative's kids had gone to school with his older siblings, and he knew the Congressman lived in a little house in his hometown of Seaford.
"I was apprehensive, and I wasn't sure what he was looking for in me," Haskell said. "But then I saw how sincere he was about making the right decisions. You know, of all the things I went through since Sept. 11, the most surprising was winding up working for a Congressman. That's just not something I ever aspired to do."
On a recent evening, Haskell sits on the battered green sofa in the firehouse. Part clubhouse, part garage, the firehouse is filled with ghosts of the terrorist attacks, like posters depicting the faces of the fallen firefighters, alongside reminders that life goes on. A baby announcement for the son of one of the men is scrawled on a smudgy dry-erase board. There's a sign-up sheet for the weekend's hockey game.
"I'm not a political guy, and I still don't consider myself a political guy," he said.
Haskell is a physically imposing man, a former high school athlete who spends plenty of time in the firehouse's bare-bones weight room.
He is just back from a fire in Queens, and he smells of sweat and smoke.
He is modest about what he contributes to King's operation. "Pete will tell me, 'I can have a hundred guys show me a graph or a flow chart about how something is going to work, but it wouldn't tell me how it's going to affect the actual people on the ground,'" Haskell said of King. "And I'm willing to do that."
In typical Long Island patois, his "r's" become "ah's"
The job takes him to Washington three or four times a year for meetings or to sit in on hearings. He also represents King at events back in the district. At Eagle Scout ceremonies or memorials, Haskell shakes hands, says a few words and gives the Congressman's regards.
Often, he acts as a liaison between King's office and the fire and police departments.
King says that although he has good relationships with the department brass, Haskell always knows who to connect him to on a particular issue.
To hear them speak of one another, Haskell makes King out to be an average Joe, while King describes Haskell as something of a statesman.
"He's just a blue-collar guy," Haskell said of King. "He's just as comfortable sitting around, having beers in someone's backyard as he is in Washington."
One senses, too, that King simply likes to have a guy like Haskell around. He's a real-life specimen of the first responders whom elected officials all too often move about like so many toy soldiers and a tangible reminder of what so many of his constituents lost on 9/11.
Haskell's memories of the days following the attacks are both blurry and sharp.
The smell is one detail he will never forget. Most fires, he said, smell of smoke and burning wood. But the air surrounding the inferno at ground zero was a different beast. Maybe it was the aviation fuel, or the pulverized cement that hung in the air, but it was unlike any other fire he'd known. And for days, he breathed it in.