Friday, September 10, 2021

From fireman at 9/11 tragedy to the priesthood


The remarkable story of how a 9/11 fireman became a priest

Fr. Tom Colucci’s vocation is a light emanating from the darkness of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Fr. Tom Colucci at the 9/11 Memorial, the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City. (Image courtesy of the author)

All of us old enough have vivid memories of where we were when the news reached us that planes had struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sitting in my 8th grade history class in a suburb north of New York City. Our studies were interrupted when the principal came on the loudspeaker informing us of what was transpiring just 40 miles away. She concluded her remarks by assuring us that we were safe and that we should all be proud to be Americans. Young and scared, I clutched the Miraculous Medal hanging around my neck.

On that same morning, Tom Colucci completed the night shift at his Engine 3, Ladder 12 & Battalion 7 firehouse in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. He arrived at his suburban home in Rockland County for some much needed rest. But as soon as he walked through the front door, a general recall was sent out for he and all firemen to immediately report to the World Trade Center, where violent disaster had stuck. Getting into his car and making his way to lower Manhattan, he could not have guessed what awaited him on that fateful day. He and the world would be changed forever.

As Colucci drove swiftly down the highway and through the Lincoln Tunnel, news reports on his radio made it clear that two planes had slammed into the Twin Towers in an orchestrated terrorist attack. By the time he arrived on scene, the South Tower had already collapsed. As thousands were fleeing for their lives, he and his brothers in the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) ran in the opposite direction toward chaos and disaster; an act of extraordinary and selfless courage.

While guiding people to safety and looking for survivors in the wreckage, he gazed up at the still standing North Tower every few moments, knowing that it too could collapse at any time. And before long, it did. In what felt and sounded like an earthquake, the North Tower began to crumble. He and two other firemen ducked for cover beside a nearby car and somehow survived.

When they were finally able to stand and began to survey the damage, they weren’t able to see beyond a foot or so amidst all the smoke. Colucci spent the rest of the day looking through the debris for survivors. He arrived at what came to be called Ground Zero at about 10:00 in the morning, just after the South Tower collapsed. He remained working on site until midnight before making his way to a local firehouse for rest and recuperation. But he couldn’t sleep, thinking of all his brothers in the FDNY who were able to get on site before him and make their way into the towers. They were likely all dead.

The devastation was perpetrated by 19 Islamists who hijacked four airplanes, slamming two into the Twin Towers, a third into the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and a fourth into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after its heroic passengers fought back, preventing more heartbreak and carnage. Almost three thousand people were killed that day and 343 of them belonged to the FDNY. Colucci was acquainted with about a hundred of them, thirty of whom he knew well and five he knew intimately.

“Victim 0001,” the first certified casualty on 9/11, was a Catholic priest and chaplain to the FDNY named Fr. Mychal Judge, O.F.M. While in the lobby of the North Tower he was killed by debris from the collapsing South Tower. First responders carried his body—captured in a famous photo—to nearby Saint Peter’s Church on Barclay Street. They didn’t know what else to do, so they reverently laid his body on the altar.

The five who Colucci knew so well belonged to his Engine 3 Firehouse: Battalion 7 Deputy Chief Orio Palmer, Lt. Philip Petti, Stephen Belson, Angel Juarbe, and Michael Mullen. All have stories of heroism. Colucci’s remembers Palmer’s the most vividly. He was a marathon runner. On 9/11 he took an elevator to the 41st floor and as fit as he was, was able to climb 37 flights of stairs with approximately 50 pounds of gear, making it to the South Tower sky lobby on the 78th floor. He is one of the few reported first responders able to make it that far up.

For the next month Colucci remained at his firehouse and each day he either searched the pile of wreckage at Ground Zero for those unaccounted for, responded to other fires that routinely occur in such a big city, or attended a funeral of one of his fallen brothers.

Two days after the attacks, a clearly identifiable cross was found amidst the blasted wreckage. Against seeming insuperable odds, a 17-foot-long crossbeam, weighing at least two tons, was thrust at a vertical angle in the hellish wasteland. Images of the cross proliferated throughout the country. Holy Mass began to be offered for Ground Zero workers beneath it each day.

Colucci attended many of these Masses while working on site. He also attended the many Requiem Masses of the funerals offered for his fallen brothers in the ensuing months. While present at them, an old thought returned to his mind: “Why don’t I become a priest?” He had been raised in a devout Catholic family and always practiced the Faith with great devotion. He was active in campus ministry during his college years and it was suggested to him by several priests that he should enter the seminary. But, after having worked for some years as a physical education teacher, he had instead joined the FDNY.

By 9/11 he had been in the fire department for sixteen years and was nearing retirement. While praying at so many Masses on site at Ground Zero and at the many funerals of his fallen c0-workers, the value of Christ’s priesthood in such a troubled world became more clear to him. Firemen are needed to save lives, to pull bodies from the flames. But the work of the priest has eternal ramifications. It is the priest’s mission to save souls from eternal flames, restoring fallen man’s union with God. At some point, at one of these Masses, Colucci made a resolution in prayer that as soon as he retired from the FDNY in a few short years, he would become a priest.

This resolution came earlier than expected. Less than a year after 9/11 he was involved in an explosion on the job which forced him into an early retirement. He suffered a major head injury that required two delicate brain surgeries to prevent blood clotting. The experience gave him a renewed resolve to make a total consecration of his life to God. Colucci decided to forgo the parish priesthood, which would require lots of study in the seminary and decided instead to enter Mount Savior Monastery in upstate New York. He jokingly told me in a recent conversation: “The idea of studying for six years at the seminary made my head hurt more than the brain surgery, so I decided to be a monk instead of a priest.”

He entered the monastery in 2004,  taking the name Thomas Bernadette, and spent eight happy years waking at 4:00 am for prayer and fulfilling his daily chores of cooking, mowing the lawn, and plowing the snow. As he recovered further from his surgeries, the desire to save souls through a more active ministry returned to him. In 2012 he entered Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers to study to become a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He was dispensed of his vows as a monk and in 2016, at the age of 60, was ordained at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

A section of the Cathedral at the ordination Mass was reserved for 300 members of the FDNY, while an astounding 700 more waited outside on 5th Avenue, along with three firetrucks and a bagpipe band. When the now Fr. Tom Colucci exited the Cathedral, still vested in chasuble, to bestow his first priestly blessings on his many brothers of the FDNY, there was a flyover of four helicopters from the police aviation unit.

I am very fortunate to know Fr. Colucci personally. We attended St. Joseph’s Seminary together and I respect and admire the hardworking pastor he is at Most Precious Blood in Walden, New York. In preparation for this piece, we (along with some other priest-friends and seminarians) spent the day together visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in lower Manhattan.

Fr. Colucci was eager to show us two items on display. The first, was the “Ground Zero Cross” beneath which he attended so many Masses while working amidst the ruble. The other was a fragment of a torn Bible fused to a piece of metal also found in the wreckage. Legible verses on the page read in part “an eye for an eye,” followed by “…resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt 5:38-9). These are the teachings of the Prince of Peace that will ultimately prevail over all evil.

After we left the Museum we ascended to the Memorial where twin waterfall pools, each nearly an acre in size, sit in the footprints of the former towers. The pools are surrounded by bronze parapets that list the names of all the victims. It was moving for those of us accompanying Fr. Colucci to see him standing there looking over the pools, remembering his many days spent in this place looking for survivors and the remains of the lost.

Twenty years have past since that place was engulfed in the darkness of death, but as the Prophet Isaiah promises: “…those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isa 9:2). Fr. Colucci’s vocation is a light emanating from the darkness of 9/11.

Overlooking the pools we all chanted together the Introit of the Requiem Mass for those who perished:

Requiem aeternam dona eis, DomineEternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them…

Fr. Colucci then lifted his priestly hand to impart a blessing.

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