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  Road Signs

The following letter was written by Tom Healey '76 in September to his classmates and friends upon his return from the devastation of lower Manhattan. Healey is director of corporate communications at Princeton eCom as well as a volunteer firefighter and a volunteer with a critical incident stress debriefing team of fire department safety officers often used by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) at major emergency incidents.

Tom Healey ’76I can't begin to thank you all for your thoughts, prayers and support during my recent attempts to lend a hand in New York. I can't tell you how much it meant to me to receive so many e-mails and calls and to know that the thoughts and prayers of so many people were with us and with the families of the people we were trying to either find or help with the emotional trauma of dealing with the emotional struggles that began on Sept. 11 and likely will continue for a lifetime.

Speaking quite honestly, I went to New York scared out of my wits. Not so much by the physical danger as by the fear of what I would see and find. I really didn't know how I would react to any of that. But it helped me to overcome those fears, reading your e-mails, feeling your support, and thinking of your faces and your laughter in other, better times. I'm sure that those of our classmates who have had military assignments far from home or in harm's way can tell you just how powerful that support is. And, now, so can I.

Ironically, I've tried often to be one of the people sending the messages. To be unexpectedly on the receiving end was overwhelming.

I said to a friend one night that I'm glad that I don't have to write or report about what happened here. I'm not sure that I would know where to start. I have in my mind, as you might imagine, a swirl of images and memories. I have the images of the site at night, surreal in the construction floodlights, the smoke still coming up from pockets of fire underneath it.

In what may have been a few of the scariest moments of my life, I went into the dark, collapsed shell of a building just north of the Trade Center site to prove to an older, New York firefighter that the sound that had sent him digging by hand into the rubble was just the wind blowing a file cabinet door shut and rattling it. He wrestled me out of the way and then, with his arms around me, he started to cry. Then we were both crying for what we knew would be, in the words of the Feds, "the ultimate disposition of the missing personnel."

Every day, now, I get a fax from New York with the schedule of fire department funerals and memorial services for the upcoming week. We sometimes get a request from a family for members of the suburban volunteer departments to fill out the line of uniformed mourners. With the deaths, the injuries, and the 12-on, 12-off WTC shifts, there aren't enough New York firefighters to attend in the magnitude they usually do for one of their own.

I stopped reading the New Jersey papers because I couldn't cope with the personalization of the tragedy, especially since so many of the victims were either in our age group or younger. When I finally opened up the Princeton Packet, I read the obit of John Ryan '78 with whom I had gone to high school and college and for whom, our classmate Tom Ryan had been an R.A.

And, finally, late one night, leaving the "frozen zone" below Canal Street, three of us ran into a New York firefighter, dirty and dusty, playing his bagpipes alone on a deserted and dark side street. Unfortunately, I've been to too many funerals over the years, and I recognized the tunes immediately as "Will ye no come back again?" and "Going Home," two staples of the New York Fire Department Emerald Society Pipes and Drums.

One of my team members, with whom I had just finished a tour in a critical incident stress triage area, wanted to go and get him and talk to him. I held him back because I realized that he was preparing himself in his own way for what he would have to do in the coming weeks. He had brought his "kit" in and the pipes were taking him away.

He played well, and I'm happy we heard him play because "Going Home" struck me as the most appropriate concept for us to carry away and bring forward. I think that we've all "gone home" in a way over the past couple of weeks to revisit and re-discover our values and to re-define what is really important in our lives. It's funny, but I realized last night, that although I'm tired beyond description and more than a wee bit cranky as I come to terms with this myself, I haven't lost my temper or lost my patience with my young darlings ... even when Lauren's kitchen dancing spilled all the pasta and all the red sauce on the kitchen floor last night ... or when Connor accidentally hit me in the head with the cast that covers a broken hand and left me with a golf ball on my forehead. I'm sure the constant parade of obits of fathers and mothers who leave behind young children has expanded our patience and temperament. Suddenly, being there-being with them-is more important than getting out the mops, the brooms and the ice packs.

I think we've also gone home to our history, our traditions, our legacy, and our faith. It has occurred to me that our generation plays a critical role in terms of linkage. We will be, as their children, among the last links to "The Greatest Generation" and their values, their experiences and their faith. We will be among the few people who understand the price that a war exacts on a nation and its young people. I think we'll have important contributions to make during the course of the next difficult months, perhaps years. We will need to dig deep into the values and the traditions we were taught. We will need to use what we learned about ourselves, about the world, and about God at Holy Cross and elsewhere.

I've come back home to New Jersey, safe and sound to mourn for those friends and neighbors we've lost and to think back on John Ryan '78 with whom I occasionally shared a seat on the 7:04 to New York and the 5:38 to Princeton Junction. I've come back home to hug my kids, and laugh at the little girl soccer games and the amount of padding it takes to get Connor into the goal in roller hockey. I'm back to work and back to full strength for the first time today. I've been commuting back and forth from New York on and off. This is the first day I haven't had to put on a dust filter or mask. 

As it turns out, this weekend I will also be "going home" up I-84 and the Mass Pike. I'm heading up to Holy Cross tomorrow night for a Saturday meeting of the class chairs and correspondents. It will be good to be home again on campus. And, it will have a renewed meaning for me, thanks to you. I'm not sure if I'll be able to stay for Mass on Saturday night, but I will visit the chapel and I assure you that I will pray in gratitude for all of you. I'm proud to be one of you. I was honored and humbled to feel the love of your friendship.


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