For the next seven weeks, McDermott was in a coma. When he regained consciousness, he couldn't walk; could hardly talk. He had lost his memory.
But, unknown to him, Joe McDermott's name found its way into Catherine Sheerin's ledger.
"I thought maybe he was from my neighborhood," said Sheerin, 63, of Port Richmond. "I thought he might be related to friends of mine named McDermott."
Besides, smiled Sheerin, "he was Irish."
"I prayed for him every day," she added. "I often wondered what happened to him. How he was doing."
A few days ago, she found out.
Like that fall from the ladder, it was fate that brought them together at Moss Rehabilitation Hospital, 12th Street and Tabor Road in Olney, where McDermott has undergone a long and frustrating rehabilitation program.
But he progressed so far there, he has become a hospital volunteer, checking on other patients to see if they have any problems. One of those patients turned out to be Catherine Sheerin, who suffers from arthritis.
It was then that McDermott realized he was getting help from another source besides his therapists.
Life as he knew it ended for Joe McDermott that autumn day in Kensington almost five years ago. But it was at Moss that his new life began.
Every day for almost two years, McDermott kept a seven-hour schedule of speech, physical and occupational therapy. There also was therapy to ''remember things past."
It was an extremely slow process. But eventually things began to happen. He got to where he could get around with a walker. He began to feed himself, write his name. His speech became clearer. And he regained his terrific sense of humor.
He also started to remember "things past."
"I can tell you what I had for lunch today," McDermott, a 39-year-old bachelor, proudly smiled the other day. "A ham sandwich on a roll, fruit punch . . . I can remember last Christmas and the one before that."
"There was a time I couldn't remember what happened 10 minutes ago," added McDermott, who lives with a cousin in Bustleton. "I'm not perfect, but I'm getting better."
One thing McDermott doesn't remember is answering the final alarm, the one that would end his 15 years with the department. He doesn't recall making his last run to an insignificant trash fire, believed to have been set by vandals, in a vacant building at 2424 N. Front St.
"I rode past it ( the building ) about a year ago," said McDermott. "I asked my sister to drive me. I heard all about it. I wanted to see it. I thought seeing it might jog my memory. It didn't. It didn't ring a bell."
McDermott continues to receive therapy at Moss as an outpatient. In time, he may be able to deposit that final fire in his memory bank. But for now, Moss officials feel he's come far enough to be a hospital volunteer.
"I go around the hospital visting patients, see if they have any problems, any complaints," said McDermott. "I meet a lot of people who have worse problems than me. God, I don't have it bad at all. I make small talk. I tell them I've been there. I try to put them at ease."
Which is how he came to mosey into Catherine Sheerin's room the other day. ''I asked if she had any complaints about the food," smiled McDermott. She didn't.
While making "small talk," Sheerin learned that her prayers had been answered.
"I always wondered how you were," said Sheerin. "I'm glad you're all right. I prayed for you every day."
Joe McDermott nodded. "Thank you," he said.