In Memoriam: Thomas P. Cullen, III
Before we can memorialize a good man, a husband, a father, and a son to my good friend, we need to remember how he died. He didn’t die of old age, in his sleep, surrounded by family and friends. He didn’t die as a result of working in one of the Twin Towers on September 11th. He died because he and his fellow members of Squad 41 from the Bronx ran into building that was crumbling, on fire, full of people who needed his help.
He offered all that he had to give on that day, without hesitation.
If we were able to ask him today “would you do it all over again the same way,” I suspect he would say yes.
September 11, 2001 was Tommy’s father’s worst nightmare. A firefighter himself, my friend Tom Cullen, Jr., Tommy’s dad, received a call from his other son that morning. Tom grabbed his dog and drove three days straight from the Florida Keys to New York City. He spent many days in a living hell of trying to discover what had happened to his son.
And this is what Tommy saw as he was running into what remained of the Towers:
From Esquire.com article by Tom Junod, www.esquire.com/features/ESQ0903-SEP-FALLINGMAN
“They began jumping not long after the first plane hit the North Tower, not long after the fire started. They kept jumping until the tower fell. They jumped through windows already broken and then, later, through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when the ceilings fell and the floors collapsed; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died. They jumped continually, from all four sides of the building, and from all floors above and around the building’s fatal wound. They jumped from the offices of Marsh & McLennan, the insurance company; from the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading company; from Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors — the top. For more than an hour and a half, they streamed from the building, one after another, consecutively rather than en masse, as if each individual required the sight of another individual jumping before mustering the courage to jump himself or herself. One photograph, taken at a distance, shows people jumping in perfect sequence, like parachutists, forming an arc composed of three plummeting people, evenly spaced. Indeed, there were reports that some tried parachuting, before the force generated by their fall ripped the drapes, the tablecloths, the desperately gathered fabric, from their hands. They were all, obviously, very much alive on their way down, and their way down lasted an approximate count of ten seconds. They were all, obviously, not just killed when they landed but destroyed, in body though not, one prays, in soul. One hit a fireman on the ground and killed him; the fireman’s body was anointed by Father Mychal Judge, whose own death, shortly thereafter, was embraced as an example of martyrdom after the photograph — the redemptive tableau — of firefighters carrying his body from the rubble made its way around the world.”
Tommy met his wife, Susan, at Fordham University. As is true of many in the Cullen family, it was said of Tommy that “fire was his true love.” This love has been passed on to the next generation. When his son, Tom, was two years old he could distinguish one kind of truck from another (that doesn’t happen accidentally). Father and son also shared a love of electric trains, and Tommy, once his son was asleep, would rearrange the toy train tracks set up in the living room.
Thomas Patrick Cullen, III, was a brave man, a good father, and a good husband. He was a fine firefighter and a friend to all who knew him. He died doing what he had devoted his life to doing: rescuing people.
I requested to write this memorial because of my friend, Thomas Patrick Cullen, Junior. If you knew him, you would know how it is that he raised such a fine, brave young man as was Tommy Cullen III. This memoriam is for Tommy, and for Tom as well.
Thomas Patrick Cullen, III’s sacrifice for his country and the people of New York City will never be trivialized or forgotten, not while there is breath in my body or ink in my pen.