Patrick Sullivan would be 41 years old today. By now he probably would have had a family, and he and his wife and kids probably would have spent this summer in Breezy Point, out at the far western tip of the Rockaway Peninsula, where his parents and his two brothers have summer houses. He would have watched his kids playing with their grandparents and uncles and cousins on the beach, the same beach where he and his brothers played when they were young. He probably would have had a great life.
But Patrick never got married or had children, never got his house near the beach. He was one of the 2,606 people who were killed at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, one of the 2,977 Americans murdered by Islamic terrorists that morning nine years ago.
Six years ago, on the occasion of the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I wrote a column here on NRO called “Never Forget,” in which I tried to describe — to the extent one can describe — what one family went through on the day their son and their brother was so suddenly and so savagely taken from them. Most of us, we lucky ones who were spared any direct effects, don’t think much about the 9/11 attacks anymore. Perhaps it’s only human nature to have a short memory about loss and cruelty and death — especially when they happen to others — for if we dwelt on them too much we would have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. But I hope you’ll take the time to read that earlier column and to think about the Sullivans and the thousands of other families whose experiences were every bit as heart-wrenching as theirs, all those people for whom the coming of each September brings not just a new school year or football season or pennant race, but a time to remember someone — a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a father or mother — who went off to work that day and never returned.
“I miss Patrick as much today as I did then,” middle brother Jerry Sullivan told me this week. Until three weeks before the 9/11 attacks, he worked with Patrick at Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services firm on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower. If he hadn’t decided to change jobs when he did, Jerry would have died along with his brother. Not one of the 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees who went to the office that day made it out alive.
“I have two kids of my own now,” Jerry says, “Mary Patrick and Shane Patrick. When I was growing up I always pictured my kids growing up and playing with Greg’s and Patrick’s. It’s still hard to believe he’s not here.”
Jerry’s daughter knows she was given her middle name in honor of the uncle she never knew. She knows Uncle Patrick died before she was born but doesn’t know how. “I just took her into Manhattan to the American Girl store the other day,” Jerry says. “She’s so innocent, even more innocent than most seven-year-old girls. She still believes in Santa Claus. Someday she’ll know all about 9/11, but not now. It’s hard enough to explain when some other kid is mean to her. How can she imagine these guys killing her uncle and thousands of other people in one morning. How can she imagine somebody wanting to fly an airplane into the back of her head?”
Oldest brother Greg is now retired from the NYPD after a 20-year career. Patrick had helped him pay his way through law school before he died, and today Greg practices real-estate law in New York’s Westchester County. Like Jerry, he has a little bungalow in Breezy Point near their parents’ house. “Jerry and I can hear each other yelling at our kids at night,” Greg says. “I always imagined Patrick having a family and a place out in Breezy and all our kids running around like we did when we were little. It’s such a tragedy he never got to do all of that.”
Their father, also named Patrick (Paddy to his many friends), had similar dreams for his sons. “It’s great having Greg and Jerry and all the kids out here [in Breezy Point] every summer, but Patrick should be here too. He should have had a family and all the things he deserved. He was such a good guy.”
“I was tough on the first two,” says Paddy, who like Greg spent 20 years with the NYPD. “But Pat could do just about anything. One day he tells me he’s going out to a bar. I said, ‘But you’re only 16!’ He just smiled and off he went. I never would have let Greg or Jerry get away with that, but I just knew Pat would be okay. I never thought I had to worry about him.”
Paddy and his wife, Mary, were at the house in Breezy Point on the morning of 9/11. “I talked to him about five minutes before the first plane hit,” he says. “He called us every morning from the office. I only got to talk to him for a minute that day because he had to go to a meeting. I thought he’d call back later but then, you know, it all happened.”
The parents still spend their summers in Breezy Point, living the rest of year in Florida. Their experience on 9/11 inspired them to get involved in the community in a surprising way. Today, 72-year-old Paddy drives an ambulance for the Breezy Point volunteer fire department, and 66-year-old Mary rides with him as an emergency medical technician. They average about 400 runs every year during the six months they spend in Breezy Point.
“People see us jump out of the ambulance and they look pretty surprised,” Paddy says. “I took one guy to the hospital after he cut himself. He weighed about 300 lbs., and when we got to the hospital he asks me if I’m going to get him out of the ambulance by myself. I told him I got him in there by myself and I could get him out by myself.”
For the surviving Sullivans, reminders of Patrick are everywhere in Breezy Point. On the Rockaway Bay side stands a memorial to the 29 residents of the community killed on 9/11, and the entire beach on that side of the point offers a view of lower Manhattan where the twin towers used to dominate the skyline. Father and sons alike speak of their frustration that even after nine years that skyline remains so conspicuously bare.
“We should have had those buildings up five years ago,” says Paddy. “There’s going to be a mosque down there soon, but the World Trade Center is still a hole in the ground. How did they let that happen?”
Jerry, too, is disheartened that a mosque might be constructed so close to where his brother was murdered, and he is skeptical of those who claim the mosque will represent a Muslim effort to reach out to other communities. “In all these nine years,” he says, “we haven’t heard from a any Muslim organization or any individual Muslim who expressed regret for what happened to Patrick. And we know a lot of people who lost someone that day — firemen and cops and people from Cantor Fitzgerald — and none of them has heard from any Muslims, either.”
Greg spoke of spending time at Ground Zero in the days after the attack as he ran down rumors that Patrick might have survived and was in some hospital or another. “If you had told me back then that in nine years that place would still be nothing but a hole in the ground, and they’d be putting up a mosque around the corner, I’d have said you were crazy. Not in America, not in New York City. I’d have said that couldn’t happen in a million years. What’s changed in this country and this city that it could be happening now?”
He is especially scornful of those who argue the constitutional merits of allowing the mosque to be built. “No one is saying they don’t have a legal right to build their mosque,” he says, “but it’s like a poke in the eye to everyone who lost someone down there. They want to talk about the Constitution and how great it is, but these are the same people who spend the rest of the day trying to make the Constitution into something it isn’t. I don’t know how [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg puts his head on his pillow at night. He should be ashamed of himself.”
But whatever the fate of the mosque, for the Sullivans, 9/11 will always be about Patrick. “It was tough losing a brother,” says Jerry, “but I didn’t really understand how hard it was for my parents to lose a son until I had my own kids. I don’t know how I’d live if I lost one of them.”
“We have our good days and our bad days,” says Paddy. “It’s always tough on his birthday and on 9/11. We were at a funeral for a relative not long before he died, and Patrick looked around at all his aunts and uncles getting older and he figured he’d be going to 30 or 40 more funerals in the next few years. But before you knew it all those aunts and uncles were coming to his.”
“It’s such a shame,” Paddy says. “He was just a great son, a great brother, a great friend. He was good at anything he did. He would have been a great father. It’s all just such a shame.”
– Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber.