A Tribute to Thomas Patrick Cullen III--One of 2,996 People Who Died Five Years Ago on 9/11
Hawaii, where I have lived for the past 13 years, is 6 hours and 4,968 miles away from New York. By the time a friend woke me up with a phone call on that terrible morning both of the World Trade Center towers had collapsed and Thomas Cullen had already died along with far too many of his fellow firefighters, law enforcement officers and ordinary citizens who had been going about their daily business on an ordinary September day. Then the planes hit and world history paused for a moment before disintegrating before our eyes.
I have found very little information on Thomas Patrick Cullen. He was 31 years old. He was the son of a firefighter and was himself a member of the NYFD, Squad 41. He died “in” or “at” one of the two WTC towers. He was married to Susan and had a young son, Tom, who was 2 years old when his father died. No doubt that little Tom has grown into a likeness of his father over the past 5 years. I pray that his life and laughter brings comfort and joy to his wife.
His full name was Thomas Patrick Cullen III. This implies a close and loving family, the first-born son of a first-born son. No doubt he was loved and, by his decision to serve as a firefighter, he fulfilled the high hopes and expectations of his family. He worked and trained and fought hard for his job. It was a position that he had earned honorably. The long shifts, constant dangers and being “on-call” must have caused a great deal of stress and inconvenience. But I have no doubt that he was proud of what he had accomplished and took great pleasure in the service he was providing for the city and people of Manhattan.
A friend has written a note calling him “Tommy.” I don’t know what the other firefighters, his wife or family called him but that name “Tommy” reminds me that he was more than just a name to people. “Tommy” implies a childhood. It implies friends. It implies memories of school and summer vacations and all the things that come with “growing up” including hopes and dreams and thoughts and plans and talents and skills and jokes and tears.
As I have pondered the events of that first “9/11” morning I have tried to imagine what it must have been like to jump and fall to the earth like a spent meteor. I have tried to imagine what it must have been like to be a passenger on an airplane, swerving into a skyscraper and evaporating in an instant. I have tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been sitting at a desk and catching a glimpse of an airplane heading straight towards your office window.
I have tried to imagine what it must have been like to stand alongside my friends from my fire station, heart pounding, weighed down by the full burden of my emergency response pack, and running into what I knew could well be my own tomb . . . setting all thoughts of my own safety and well-being aside . . setting all thoughts of my own wife and family aside . . . thinking only of others who might need my help to survive.
I have tried to imagine what it must have been like to experience a moment when you sensed, deep down in the deepest part of your being, that you had been born and had lived all your life in order to be prepared and present for this one moment of time. To know without words that your entire life would somehow be summed up in the next few minutes of your life and that, should your life come to an end, it would have been a life worth living.
I have tried, but I have failed, to imagine the race up and down darkened stairways filled with the smell of smoke, the shouting of rescuers and the silent, shadowy figures of people in disheveled dresses and ties staggering downward, arm in arm, hand in hand, helping and encouraging one another in intimate yet nameless friendship.
If Thomas Cullen’s death was similar to that experienced by most other members of the NYFD that day it must have come suddenly, with perhaps a distant roar of crumbling concrete and steel and a sudden and fatal blast of air and debris that preceded the actual crush of the building a moment later.
I note that Thomas Cullen is listed as a “confirmed death.” It is my hope that some personal part of his physical person was recovered so that his family could grieve and mourn over a tangible loss. I hope that these remains were laid to rest at a time and place where he could be remembered and honored . . . a place where his son can visit and get to know him and love him in silent prayer and reflection.
I do not know whether Thomas Cullen was a man of religious faith but I do know that his life was celebrated at a Roman Catholic Mass on October 5, 2001. As a Christian myself, I entrust him to “the care and mercy of Almighty God.” I believe that God raised his Son, Jesus, from the dead and that a place has been prepared in eternity for those who belong to him. My God, the Father of my Lord, Jesus Christ, is Love greater than evil; Life stronger than death; Light brighter than darkness and Hope victorious over despair.
I claim this faith not only for myself and my own family but for Thomas Cullin and his family as well.
I do not know Cullen’s wife, Susan, to know what words of comfort or encouragement she might need on this 5th anniversary of her husband’s death. I do know that she wrote the following note to her husband on the day of his memorial service:
When I was young, I dreamed of finding someone really special who would come into my life and love me wholly and uniquely…someone who would understand my desires, encourage my efforts, and share my dreams…When I grew older I found that person: I love you for loving me just the way I dreamed it would be.I can only hope that my thoughts, my prayers, my gratitude and my remembering her husband in this post will bring some assurance that his life was not lived in vain and that an honorable and courageous death, the giving of ones life out of love for others, is often the seed that one day reaps a harvest of peace and a new generation of heroes for tomorrow.
History as we knew it cracked, collapsed and died in a pile of dust and debris five years ago in Lower Manhattan. Just last October I personally walked around the remains of the World Trade Center site as if on some sort of spiritual pilgrimage, pausing often to reflect, ponder and pray.
I prayed for people like Tommy Cullen. I prayed for peace. I prayed for hope. The thought of politics did not even cross my mind that day. I did, of course, feel like an American that day . . . and proud to be one. But I also felt something more than that. I felt human. I felt humble. I felt vulnerable and weak yet incredibly strong and resolute at the same time.
Freedom never does come easily or free to any people. Yet, because of the brave and courageous sacrifices of people like Thomas Patrick Cullen, I continue to enjoy the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness in the United States.
As a new cycle of history emerged in the days after 9/11 I came to understand, appreciate and treasure this freedom more than I ever have before.
It is a freedom given to all people by God. It is a freedom protected and preserved by our nation’s Constitution.
On the day when others tried to take that freedom away from us, Thomas Cullen, by his own free choice, proved to me that true freedom is always ours for the giving.
Thank you, Thomas Patrick Cullen. Thank you for your life. Thank you for your sacrifice and your death.
The world would be a far better place if we all could die with the love of others in our hearts as you did five years ago on a day that must always be remembered, because of people like you, as one of our nation’s finest hours.