NOTE: This post was originally published in 2011 and is republished on this newer Walking Distance platform to share Tommy Foley with new followers here. May Tommy Foley’s soul and all the souls of those we lost on Sept. 11, 2001 rest in peace.
It took me about a day or so after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 for the reporter gene in me to kick in.
Realizing that I knew someone who may be able to give me an insider’s view of the biggest American tragedy since Pearl Harbor, I reached out to my bureau chief at People to offer my help in reporting. Whatever kind of coverage they were doing, they were sure to have a full contingent of reporters and freelancers pitching in, and I just had to be in on the biggest story that I would ever come across in my life.
I had no idea what I was volunteering to do.
I reminded my BC that Tommy Foley was a firefighter in the South Bronx and our readers were sure to remember him. She agreed. “Make some calls,” she said.
I dialed Tommy’s cell phone, expecting to get his voice mail because I knew he would be on site at Ground Zero with his brother firemen. I had every confidence that he would return my call, when he got a moment. That’s the way Tommy was. You could count on him to be responsive, dependable, and always, a gentleman.
To cover my bases, I called his home number too. He had moved into his own home several months before. We had chatted on the phone sometime after that, if my memory is correct, but to be honest, the details are fuzzy after all these years. I do know that our phone call that night was just a friendly call to say hello instead of a reporter-subject interview.
He was thinking about auditioning for Survivor. He was still loving his job, but open to new opportunities for really making the most of his life. We talked for about an hour. He sounded, as always, happy and positive.
When I didn’t hear back from Tommy within a day of leaving him those messages on September 11, I began to get nervous. By then, my BC was calling for an update. Unfortunately, it hadn’t occurred to me — still — that Tommy may have been one of those first responders who rushed in to the towers to help get people out. I hated the thought, but when my bureau chief said I had better call his family and find out what was going on, I knew I was in for an assignment I really did not want to do.
There was no backing out now. I had signed up for this.
There is nothing worse as a reporter than having to call the family of a victim — even if the “victim” has not yet been determined to be one. No sooner did I identify myself to Tommy’s sister, Joanne, the words tumbled out of her mouth and took my breath away.
“We don’t know anything yet,” she said.
I was stunned. Beyond stunned. It could not be true.
Joanne told me that Tommy was due to get off work that morning, finishing up his shift at 9 a.m. But firefighting was his calling, and when duty called, Tommy was there. Joanne promised to keep me posted, promised to let me know when there was news. I filed the briefest of stories that week, and People ran another great photo of Tommy with my information. I hated what it said.
Ten days later, I was leaving Shea Stadium with my brother James after a Mets game when my cell phone beeped a voice mail message. “They found him,” Joanne’s message said.
“They” were Danny Foley, Joanne and Tommy’s younger brother, and KC Gross, Joanne’s husband, who had continued to search the rubble at Ground Zero until they found Tommy. Danny Foley made that promise to his parents, Tom and Pat Foley, that he would bring Tommy home. Miraculously, he kept that promise.
It has been ten years since those horrors turned the Foley family’s world inside out. Last weekend, Joanne Foley Gross took that nightmare and converted it into pure inspiration. Her documentary, Tommy Foley: Legacy of a Young Hero, captured a happy, candid young man of tremendous potential, who had lived every day like it was his last.
To this day, any time I drove across the Tappan Zee Bridge, I think of Tommy Foley, because his hometown of West Nyack is literally the next highway sign that pops up on that route. On those rare occasions when I drive by the Palisades Center mall, I remember how anguished I was, sitting in my car in that parking lot after Tommy was confirmed among the dead at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
I sat there trying to find a way out of having to contact his close friends and family for “comment” for my People story. I have been in those shoes as the sister of a victim, and they are uncomfortable, horrible shoes. Instead, I told myself that my empathy would be, in some small way, a gift to them because I would approach them and those who loved Tommy with a compassion that would never be aggressive or pushy, but would respect their privacy and pain while getting my job as a reporter done.
The Foley family has handled their “victim’s family status” with grace, class, compassion, and generosity. They have steadfastly preserved Tommy’s memory and are sharing him with the world. It takes a lot to do that. It takes guts.
I just want to know: How did Pat and Tom Foley raise such an extraordinary young man?
His poise, particularly in the face of danger or the uncomfortable public spotlight. He was deliberately thoughtful with his words. He was also totally at ease. He was, he told me, that blend of country boy with an ability to be as comfortable in his boots and cowboy hat as he was at a black-tie affair in the city. He just plain liked people, and he admired his parent’s more than 35-year union, holding up that example as the model for himself. If he couldn’t have it that way, he wouldn’t do it, he said.
In the film last week, I couldn’t help smiling at Tommy’s reference to this when he talked about where he saw himself in five years time. The package included wife, kids, home, but also all the things he loved the most. “Bull riding, a firefighter … just to be happy. If I can find a girl like that one day … Giddyup.”
Then he smiled that smile.
Copyright 2011 By Marianne V. Heffernan
Visit www.firefighterthomasjfoley.com for more information on Tommy Foley and to order a copy of Legacy of a Young Hero. Proceeds from the film sales will benefit the Firefighter Thomas J. Foley Foundation.
You can also visit Walking Distance‘s Facebook page at http://goo.gl/I7CFo for more photos from the film premiere.