Thomas Patrick Cullen, Jr. is a New York City Irishman, Yankees fan, and lifetime firefighter and first-responder. He lives southeast of Knoxville with Crockett and Tubbs, a 75-pound Boxer dog and an 18-pound tabby cat.
Ten years ago this Sunday his oldest son, FDNY firefighter Thomas Patrick Cullen III went into the south tower of the World Trade Center, and never came back out.
On this 10th anniversary we take the time to honor the fallen by honoring and loving those left behind.
September 11, 2001, 9:11 a.m.
The code came across his pager:
“45 911” – “Call your daughter. Emergency.”
Tom called her.
“Is Tommy working today?” she asked.
“Yes” Tom said.
“Would he be working the Trade Center?” she asked.
“Yes, he’s part of the Special Operations Group.”
“We’re under attack, Dad, turn on the television!”
Tom was at the doctor’s office and when the doctor turned on the television they watched a replay of the second plane exploding into the south tower of the Word Trade Center. Tom was on the phone running out the door before the doctor had time to look up.
Tom was a planner for the Monroe County Emergency Management Department and by the time he got to the Emergency Operations Center every television was on and the staff was standing in front of the televisions talking, guessing, and planning for they knew not what. They watched the south tower collapse, then the north tower. Tom looked up at a colleague.
“I think they just killed my son.”
September 11 – October 5, 2001
Tom drove a Thrifty rental car straight through from the Florida Keys to New York City. He kept the car for five weeks; Thrifty charged him for two.
On the drive north Tom had plenty of time to think, plan, and agonize. “Who do I know? More to the point, who do I know that might still be alive?” He called his friend, Assistant Fire Commander Thomas McDonald, who lived on Long Island.
“Tommy, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m alive” said MacDonald, crying into the phone. “Yes, I can get you to the site, on a fireboat, but promise me you won’t work on the pile, it’s too dangerous.”
Tom rode the fireboat over to what had been West Street, unrecognizable although he’d spent most of his life in New York City and had walked in that area hundreds of times. He stepped off the boat and looked up at the 12-story-high pile of smoking rubble.
“I was in bad shape” said Tom. “Then this guy runs across the rubble, grabs me in a big hug, and starts crying.” Even today, when Tom meets someone who knows him and knew Tommy, the same thing happens.
What do you do when you’ve promised not to work the pile but can’t go home until you know what happened to your son? Tom spent the next four weeks attending funerals, as many as three a day.
“Normally when a fireman is killed in New York you’d have 10,000 guys lining the streets…. There were too many funerals after that.”
A friend saw Tom wearing his Tavernier, Florida firefighter’s uniform and sent Tom to Park Uniform in Brooklyn. The next day Tom was wearing a brand new Point Breeze Fire Department uniform, the volunteer fire department Tom and his son Tommy belonged to before Tommy joined the FDNY. No charge, brother.
The memorial service for Tom’s son was held October 5th, 2001, though the remains of his unit weren’t found until Saint Patrick’s Day 2002. The remains of his son’s unit, Squad 41, were little more than ashes and bits of melted metal. But in the remains was a belt buckle that everyone believes belonged to Tommy. It was given to him by his father the day he was commissioned into the FDNY.
“We are not born for ourselves alone.”*
When Tom says “never forget” he means Americans should be clear-eyed about America’s enemies and remember to honor the daily sacrifices made by firefighters, police officers, and first responders. But do not pity those who have fallen. “They knew exactly what they were getting into” says Tom.
September 11, 2011
I asked Tom why, living in Knoxville, doesn’t he stay home or attend the ceremony at Ground Zero?
“Tommy loved San Diego” said Tom.
“After 911 I met Danny Noonan, a retired FDNY firefighter living in San Diego. He invited me to San Diego for a memorial service in 2003 but I had to be in Washington DC. “I promised Danny I’d be in San Diego the next year. Danny, his brother (another retired FDNY firefighter), the San Diego firefighters, and the people of San Diego treated me so well and conducted such a moving ceremony that I promised myself I would be in San Diego for the tenth anniversary. Thanks to Danny and his fire department ‘Brothers,’ here I am.”
When asked what he would say to Tommy if he could somehow see him again, Tom laughs and says “This might surprise you, but the one thing I want to say to him is ‘What was it like [that day]?’”
Spoken from the heart of a firefighter, and the father of a fallen hero. We do well to honor them both on this 10th anniversary, and on the hard days to follow.
If you wish to attend the 10th anniversary event in San Diego: http://www.midway.org/911.
* Quotes from Cicero, Roman philosopher and statesman, 106 – 43 BC.