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Heart Of A Firefighter
Is Blessed To Give

Somebody had to be Santa Claus.

by Sean Kirst
Copyright December 25, 2001,
The Syracuse Post-Standard.

xmas2001santa.jpg Tommy  (Santa)   Mulqueen

It was time for the annual holiday party at Ladder Company 101, the Red Hook Firehouse in Brooklyn. Every year, about a week before Christmas, the firefighters bring together their own kids and neighborhood children. They decorate a tree and they hold an open house. Usually old-timers organize the thing, the guys who've been around the place for many years.

Not this time. In a three-week span beginning in November, the firefighters from Red Hook buried seven of their own, seven men killed Sept. 11 when the twin towers burned and fell.

"After the last one," said Tommy Mulqueen, 34, "nobody was even talking about a Christmas party. People were feeling burned out."

Mulqueen figured he'd better put on the red suit, the one stuffed away in an upstairs closet at the firehouse.

In a way, he did it as a tribute. He had already delivered the eulogy for fellow "Red Hook Raider" Terry McShane.

"I did it funny," Mulqueen said, of his speech at the funeral. He is Irish-American, brought up with the idea that you raise a glass of beer and tell a joke beneath death's nose.

"I was nervous," said Mulqueen, who also volunteered to work Christmas day because he has no children of his own. "But I'm Irish. He would have wanted us to celebrate, to have a little laugh."

mcshanehelmet.jpg Terence McShane

He and McShane were close. They worked together on a lot of lonely nights, when calls were sporadic and they talked away the hours.

They found out they had a lot in common. They were both products of Irish neighborhoods and Catholic schools. They were both Mets fans who loved to play rugby. McShane lost his dad when he was 14, while Mulqueen's father died when he was 13.

"We were almost like the same person," Mulqueen said.

That explains their final and most powerful link.

The Sept. 11 call came in at 8:50 a.m., 10 minutes before the end of Mulqueen's shift.

He was tired, changed and ready to get out. McShane was just coming on. Nobody knew how bad the thing would be. "Go home," McShane told Mulqueen. "I'll take this one."

It was no big deal, something friends do for each other all the time. "I watched him leave quarters," Mulqueen said. "I think all the time about how I should have gone, about how things could have been different. I wish I could take it back."

Since then, Mulqueen has been to 63 funerals. He visits the widows of the Red Hook men who died. He recalls how McShane gave up a career as a New York City cop because he wanted to spend more time with his three kids. Mulqueen has grown especially close to McShane's boys - 7-year-old Aidan and the 4-year-old twins, Colin and Sean.

When Christmas came, thinking of them, Mulqueen organized the party.

092101w2_sm.jpg Terrence McShane and his Children

"You've got two choices now: Faith or no faith," Mulqueen said. "I look at this as an opportunity to live my life fully every day. I've got to see it that way. If you can't put your faith in God, if you can't hope that the Christmas season can bring some joy, then what have you got?"

Neighborhood residents donated a tree. The firefighters got presents together for all the kids, including the children of the widows. All that was left was finding a Santa Claus.

Mulqueen stepped up. He put on the suit and prepared himself. He expected some of the kids to ask if they could have their daddies back. Mulqueen was ready to say that their daddies were happy with God in heaven, and that someday they'd all be together there.

"There were no deep questions," Mulqueen said. "I was happy about that."

Instead, he handed gifts to child after child, including McShane's
4-year-old twins, two little boys who sat on Mulqueen's lap for a long time. "I wished them a merry Christmas," he said, "and I told them Santa's always watching them."

xmas2001y041b.jpg Santa distributes the presents

Count on that, he said. They can believe in Red Hook's Santa.

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