At the corner of Hudson and Harrison Streets, in the TriBeca section of Lower Manhattan, there stands neighborhood bar called Puffy’s Tavern. If it has been modernized at all in the last 50 years the proprietors have gone to great lengths to conceal it, for to walk through its doors is to pass into some long-ago, gentler time. Puffy’s is a “joint” in the best sense of the word, a place where pretense is neither offered nor tolerated. One of the few signs of modern life to be found within its walls is the bulletin board near the bar, on which are displayed photographs of some of the many celebrities who have planted their famous keisters on the stools and bent their elbows at the old, mahogany bar. But near the photos of Julia Roberts and Renée Zellweger and the like are some of the not-so-famous–the regular folks who stop in for a cold one or two after work each day before heading to the Subway toward home.
Last year, on September 11, I was looking at those pictures with Greg Sullivan, a sergeant for the New York Police Department. “That’s my little brother Patrick right there,” he said, pointing at one of the ten or so men in one photo. The picture was taken at a wedding in the summer of 2001, and in it the men are standing shoulder to shoulder and smiling at the camera. Even frozen in the two dimensions of a photograph, they are plainly the sort of bright and brash young men whose very bearing says “Wall Street” to anyone familiar with the term. They are young men enjoying life, especially life in New York, to the fullest. “Just about all those guys are dead now,” Greg said. “They worked with Patrick, and that day they died with him.”
“That day,” of course, was two years earlier, September 11, 2001. Today, just as the site of the World Trade Center has over these three years been transformed from a smoldering pile of rubble into a vast but tidy hole in the ground, so too has the list of the day’s victims, for most of us, become something of an abstraction, a reminder of that awful day yet somehow not completely real. We have moved on, looking back on 9/11 as we might on some other infamous date from a history book. But for the victims’ families the emotional wounds are far from healed, and as the dreadful date once again approaches they hear all the more clearly the distant echoes of their loved ones’ voices. There are thousands of stories to be told about those who died that day and those they left behind. This is only one of them.
Patrick Sullivan was 32 years old when he was killed. A Brooklyn native and graduate of Georgetown, he was one of the 658 employees at Cantor Fitzgerald, the securities firm, who were trapped on the upper floors of the World Trade Center’s north tower when it came crashing down. Not even a trace of his body was ever found. Had it not been for some odd twists of fate, his brothers Greg, who today is 38, and Jerry, 37, might have died that day with him.
Greg Sullivan has been a New York police officer since 1988. As a patrolman, he spent five years with the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit, an assignment that nearly every day took him from one dangerous situation to another. But today he is a sergeant with a law degree, and for the past few years he has worked in the Civil Enforcement Unit of the Legal Bureau, the detail that processes cases that arise when officers seize cars from drunk drivers and men patronizing prostitutes. The greatest hazard he faces in his current duties is the drive from his office near City Hall in Manhattan to the impound yard in Brooklyn. These days his uniform stays in the locker and his gun stays in the holster, which of course is just fine with his wife Theresa.
Greg was in his office that morning three years ago when a colleague called and told him a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. He immediately thought of Patrick. “Which building?” he asked. The caller didn’t know. From his office window Greg couldn’t see either of the towers, only smoke and pieces of paper filling the sky. Walking outside onto Chambers Street, he looked up and saw the damage to the north tower–Patrick’s building. He tried calling Patrick’s office and cell phone but got no answer at either number. He and his partner quickly changed into their uniforms and started running, heading for where the trouble was.
Meanwhile, middle brother Jerry was in a meeting at the New York Stock Exchange. Until three weeks earlier he had worked with Patrick at Cantor Fitzgerald, but, heeding the rumors of impending layoffs, he accepted a job as a broker on the floor of the exchange. When he announced his resignation his boss assured him that there would be no layoffs, the company would ride out the slowdown. No, Jerry said, as much as he enjoyed it there, especially working with his brother, it was time to move on.
Like most people who heard those first ambiguous reports of an airplane hitting the World Trade Center, Jerry assumed it had been a small one. How much damage could it do? he assured himself. His meeting broke up as word spread through the stock exchange that it had not been a small plane at all but an airliner, a big one. He walked out to the corner of Wall and Broad Streets and saw the north tower ablaze. Just then the second plane exploded into the south tower.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I knew Patrick was up there, and I knew Greg would come looking for him, but I didn’t have a cell phone and I didn’t know how to get in touch with anybody.” He walked to a nearby restaurant he frequented and found it closed. But the cook was inside setting up for the day and recognized Jerry as a regular. He opened the door for Jerry and let him use the telephone. Soon many others were coming in for the same reason. “The manager told us we could make all the calls we wanted,” Jerry says, “but he told us to make them quick so everybody could make their calls. He told us just to tell people we were safe and we’d call back later.” Unable to reach Patrick, Jerry phoned his wife Christine, who was at work in Midtown, and his parents out in Breezy Point. They had heard from Greg, his father said, but not from Patrick. Soon Jerry heard and felt the rumble of the south tower, all half-million tons of it, crashing to earth.
“I didn’t know what it was,” he says, “so I walked outside and looked up. I couldn’t believe it. There was only one [building] there! There was just smoke where the other one was supposed to be.” While working at Cantor Fitzgerald he had heard all the stories of the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, about how long it had taken everyone to get down the stairs from 104th floor that day. “I was praying Patrick would have time to get out. I didn’t see how he could, but you have to have hope.”
People were running by, most of them covered with ash and debris, and Jerry found a police captain among them and asked about Greg. “I couldn’t tell you anything,” the captain said. “I’m not even sure how many of my own guys I have left.” Jerry then overheard one fireman tell another: “I think we just lost 200 guys.”
Jerry joined the throng heading for the relative safety of the Westside Highway, where he waited for Christine and watched in disbelief as the north tower collapsed just as its twin had minutes before. “It was strange how beautiful the day was,” he says. “It was warm in the sun and cool in the shade, just a perfect, late-summer New York day. I thought, how could this be happening on such a nice day? I started seeing people I knew coming out of there, but nobody, nobody from Cantor [Fitzgerald]. I asked people if they had seen Patrick or heard from him. Nobody had.” He had little hope that Patrick was still alive. He wasn’t sure about Greg, who he knew would be somewhere nearby doing what he could to help.
But there wasn’t much Greg could do. “I was running around with no helmet, no gun belt, no squad of guys with me,” he says. “I can’t believe some captain or inspector didn’t grab me and ask me what the hell I was doing out there, but nobody ever did. I just kept looking up at the fires, and at the people jumping. You never see those pictures anymore, the people jumping. I saw one group of four or five people coming down holding hands. Their bodies just exploded when they hit. I try to imagine what that was like, to decide that jumping a quarter of a mile was better than what was happening up there in the fire. They had that one picture in Newsday, that one lonely guy falling, but you never see that picture anymore. It kills me that people aren’t exposed to that, what those poor people went through.”
When the north tower fell, Greg called his parents’ house and spoke to his father. “He’s gone, Dad,” he said.
Their father is also named Patrick, but he is Paddy to his friends, the lot of whom seems to include nearly everyone in the tri-state area. Paddy had been watching things on television and from the balcony of the Breezy Point home he shares with Mary, his wife of 39 years. Like Jerry, when he heard the first reports he thought it had to have been a small plane. “I’m not worried about it,” he told Mary, but when he went to the balcony and saw how much smoke was pouring from the north tower he got worried quickly enough. He and Mary divided their time between the balcony and the television set, and they were watching TV when the second plane hit. They had heard from Greg and Jerry but not from Patrick, and their repeated calls to his office and cell phone went unanswered. Their hearts sank as they watched the south tower collapse, for they knew the other one, Patrick’s building, would surely follow. It wasn’t long after it did that they got the call from Greg: Patrick was gone.
Greg and Jerry made their way out to their parents’ house that afternoon, and they all watched the news and fielded the many phone calls coming in from family and friends. Greg and Jerry were safe, they told the callers, but Patrick was still missing. Also missing was Paddy’s nephew, Peter Milano, who worked with Patrick at Cantor Fitzgerald. Unlike Patrick, Peter had made a call from the office, asking a friend to tell his wife he would make it out. He never did.
That night, back at home with Theresa, Greg didn’t know what to do with himself. He was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. “I told Theresa, ‘How can I be lying down like this?’ I got up and just watched the news all night, hoping someone would call and tell us Patrick was alive.”
They did get some tantalizing reports. Someone had talked to someone who had talked to someone who had heard that Patrick was at this or that hospital in Manhattan. Greg chased down every such report, but each visit to a hospital led only to further heartbreak. “For as big a disaster as it was,” he says, “there weren’t that many injured people. You either walked away from it or you died.” Indeed, in the days following the attacks the New York Blood Center collected 36,000 pints of blood from donors. Only 258 of them were used.
After the attacks, Greg was detailed to the department chaplain’s office, spending his days with Father Bob Romano and helping attend to the families of the 23 NYPD officers who had been killed. On September 14, those 23 families and those of the 37 Port Authority police officers who also died gathered in the Javitz Center for what was supposed to be a half-hour meeting with President Bush. Greg was there with Father Romano, and he had a chance to speak one-on-one with the president. “I told him about my brother Patrick and my cousin Peter,” he says, “and I asked him not to let this happen to any more families. He looked me right in the eye and told me they were working on a plan, and we’d see what it was in a few days.” The half-hour meeting stretched into three hours. “[President Bush] didn’t leave until everybody there had their moment with him, until they all got to say what they wanted to say. I’ll never forget that.”
The following month, when the Sullivans had lost hope of recovering Patrick’s body, they held a memorial Mass for him at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Breezy Point. It was the third such service at the church that day. “We lost one or two people on every block out here,” Paddy Sullivan says, “people we’ve known for years, people the boys grew up with. Breezy [Point] is all cops and firemen and Wall Street guys. Some of the firemen and cops have sons on Wall Street, some of the Wall Street guys have sons with the cops and the fire department.” Indeed, the Sullivan brothers’ career choices were a reflection of their father’s: After spending 20 years with the NYPD in Brooklyn he moved on to a career with Prudential Securities, starting out in an entry-level job on the sales desk. Though he hadn’t risen above the rank of patrolman in the police department, his cop skills served him well in the new job; in 1994 he retired from Prudential as a first vice president.
Twenty-four people from the tiny neighborhood of Breezy Point were killed on 9/11, and the Sullivans’ block of Ocean Avenue was particularly hard-hit. Two neighbors, Vincent Kane and Kevin Pfeifer, who in their youth ran the streets of Breezy Point with the Sullivan boys, were among the 343 New York firefighters who gave up their lives that morning.
A few weeks ago Paddy Sullivan had a park bench installed down at the end of the street where it overlooks the ocean. You can sit there and look out at the beach where the boys used to play, and on a clear day, like that perfect, late-summer day three years ago, you can see all the way to where the Twin Towers used to stand. Next week a plaque will be added to the bench, dedicating it to Patrick Sullivan, Vinny Kane, and Kevin Pfeifer, the Angels of Ocean Avenue.
“I think about Patrick every single day,” Jerry says. “He was a great brother, a great friend.” When he and Christine had a daughter last September they named her Mary Patrick. “When she’s older,” he says, “her friends will probably ask her why she has a boy’s middle name. Someday she’ll understand.”
Jerry and Patrick had gotten into a brotherly spat the Saturday before Patrick died, and only by chance did they run into each other the next day on the beach at Breezy Point. “I’m so glad I went down to the beach that day,” Jerry says. “I had the chance to hug him and tell him I loved him. As much as I miss him, I’d feel even worse today if I didn’t get that chance. It was the last time I saw him.”
Greg’s memories are much the same. “Here I was,” he says, “working as a cop and going to law school and trying to raise a family. We wanted to buy a house but of course we didn’t have any money.” Two weeks before he died, Patrick met Greg on the plaza at the World Trade Center and handed him a check that would cover the down payment on the house in Mamaroneck he and Theresa would later buy. “I’ll never forget the smile on his face as he walked away that day,” Greg says. “He had just handed me all this money, but he was so happy to do it. It’s just the way he was. You can’t believe how much I miss him.”
This Saturday, September 11, all the Sullivans and their friends will gather at Saint Vito’s Church in Mamaroneck for the baptism of Greg and Theresa’s new baby boy. His name, as you must already have guessed, is Patrick.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.