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Fr. Tom Colucci: From 9/11 firefighter to New York priest

September 11

Shawn Marquardt | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 09/11/21

He saw the effects of evil at Ground Zero, and when he retired from the fire department, found a new way to save souls.

As he’s done for several years, Fr. Thomas Colucci will celebrate a memorial Mass this Saturday for the 343 New York City firefighters killed at New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The Mass will be held at the Church of St. Francis, where Fr. Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar and a Fire Department of New York chaplain, lived until he was killed on 9/11. 

Fr. Colucci could have been one of the 343 victims, as he was one of the first firefighters to respond to the airborne attacks on the Twin Towers, which occurred 20 years ago this Saturday. Since retiring from the FDNY, he took up studies to become a priest and was ordained in 2016.

Colucci had gotten off the night shift that morning, and by the time he was nearing his home, he heard the news of the attack and turned around. As he and other firefighters from his company were arriving at the scene, the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. 

“We immediately looked through the rubble in any voids we could find, to look for survivors the best that we could,” he said. “We did that for a while, but we had one eye on the North Tower, thinking that was going to come down also, which it did. There was a huge roar. We all just ran. … and a plume of dust just came over us.”

Covered in dust, the firefighters soon began digging through the North Tower pile, looking for survivors, but there were very few. Colucci, who was 45 at the time, continued digging and searching until midnight. He continued going back to “the pile” for weeks.

Colucci’s firehouse had five fatalities and several injuries. Some of his fellow firefighters were psychologically stressed. In the weeks to come, those remaining on the job not only regularly returned to the search and recovery effort at Ground Zero but still had to respond to fire calls. 

“They needed guys at the firehouse for calls that were still coming in, and probably increased, as everybody was seeing suspicious packages all over the place,” he recalled. “We had to respond to all those, and odors or smoke or suspicious people. The first three weeks were just very brutal, and it continued with the funerals.”

There were memorial services for the five firemen from his company. Just before Thanksgiving, body parts of three of them were identified, so they could then have a funeral. “It opened up wounds, and there was a lot of sadness,” Colucci recalled. “A couple of the widows gave birth to children after 9/11. It was very, very sad.”

He said he knew about 100 of the 343 firefighters who were killed on 9/11. Like fellow firefighters, his Saturdays in the coming months were often occupied by attending a funeral or memorial Mass. 

Meanwhile, digging at the pit was “gruesome, sad, and surreal,” he said, describing the process of coming across body parts and passing them along to an on-site morgue. 

But from day one, he noticed, Catholic priests (and chaplains of other denominations) showed up, offering to help in both physical and spiritual ways. Priests were there to bless human remains that were discovered and offer comfort and spiritual care to firefighters and others on the scene. Fr. Colucci remembers in particular Franciscan Fr. Brian Jordan, who wore sneakers so he could get up on the dangerous pile of rubble, full of sharp steel pieces, to be with the recovery crew.

It’s natural that he would have noticed priests — he had been thinking about becoming one himself after his planned retirement from the department in 2005. 

“It was kind of always a little bit in the back of my mind,” he said. “I had a normal life. I dated. I had my own place. … I went out with the guys for beers.” 

He also had a religious streak in him. “Even at the firehouse the guys called me Fr. Tom, even back then,” he said. “I was the Holy Name [Society] delegate. Guys would ask me about religious questions.”

September 11 wasn’t “the game changer,” he said, “but it kind of sealed the decision. I saw heroic actions — Fr. Mike [Judge], all the other priests coming down. I just saw how fragile life is. I saw these guys in the morning on 9/11 — we’re all having coffee — and then half an hour later some of them are dead. Just shows you how fragile, how precious life is.”

In his last year on the job, Fr. Colucci suffered an on-the-job head injury, which required a couple of brain surgeries. He then spent seven years with the Benedictines at Mt. Saviour Monastery in Pine City, New York, and seminary at St. Vincent’s in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. But he felt called to the life of a diocesan priest and in 2012 entered the seminary of the Archdiocese of New York.

At his ordination in 2016, he became the first retired firefighter to become a New York priest. His fellow firefighters couldn’t pass up a chance to celebrate him becoming a real “Fr. Tom.”

“There were about 1,000 guys at [St. Patrick’s] cathedral, three fire trucks, a bagpipe band. They made kind of a big to-do over it,” he said. 

In a previous interview for Aleteia’s Look Up video feature, Fr. Colucci said that on 9/11, he saw that “we were all involved in something larger than our little world. We’re all interconnected in one big human family. There is something larger. There’s another purpose in this life, so I just felt that I wanted to do something that would help a lot of people, a greater number of people.” He continued:

In both the fire department and in the priesthood you help people in need. In the fire department, people call us all hours of the day and night. We didn’t ask who they were; we just responded and helped them. Same thing with the priesthood. 

We’re body and soul, the human person, and when we rise again at the Last Judgment, we’re gonna rise body and soul. So they’re both important: saving lives and to save souls.

Fr. Colucci has become part of the brotherhood of priests, but he cannot forget the brotherhood he was part of for 20 years. Although he is not officially an FDNY chaplain, he finds himself ministering to old colleagues in various ways, talking over lunch or a golf game about their ongoing struggles stemming from 9/11, and sometimes celebrating a funeral of a firefighter who died of 9/11-related illnesses or even in the line of duty. 

“Life moves on, but still you gotta remember these guys and what they did,” he said, as he glanced at a large frame on his office wall with portraits of the 343. “Fortunately, the Fire Department has a great brotherhood. We get together and talk things out. That’s the best way to deal with it.”

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