Thomas Cooney's fire helmet, which he said saved his life during his firefighting career when he was hit with debris on the head during the King riots, with a 343 placard, in memory of the New York City firefighters who died on September 11, 2001. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Items on display at Valley National Bank in Hackettstown. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Thomas Cooney looks through his book of tributes, remembrances, and articles about his 9/11 display. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Michele Hennessy, Branch Service Manager, and Thomas Cooney at the display. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Items Thomas Cooney recovered at Ground Zero including a piece of window glass, standpipe hose clip, and fire truck grill. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Two steel bolts recovered by Cooney from Tower 2. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
A sea of firefighters memorialized in Cooney's book. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
A tribute in Cooney's book to friend and colleague, First Deputy Fire Commissioner William Feehan. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
A Civil War Tribute Memorial overlooks the Valley National Bank branch in Hackettstown. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Local Resident Remembers Firefighters Lost at the World Trade Center With Memorial Display
Saturday, May 26, 2012 • 8:11am
HACKETTSTOWN, NJ – Thomas Cooney of Vernon had already been retired from the New York City Fire Department for 22 years when tragedy struck on September 11, 2001.
“I was at home like everyone else watching it on TV,” said Cooney, who grew up in New York City, but has been a Vernon Township resident for the last 40 years. “When I saw the disaster on TV, I knew they needed a lot of help.”
Prior to that, Cooney had experienced what he described as the “largest loss from a singular fire” in 1966.
The 23rd Street Fire, as it is now known (click here to see photos and a story of the fire), occurred when firefighters responded to a call on October 17, 1966 to the location of an art dealer, who had extremely flammable paints and lacquers, as well as wood frames in the basement of the five-story building. Firefighters entered through Wonder Drug, which had recently been renovated with concrete and terrazzo flooring. The new flooring made it difficult for firefighters to feel the intensity of the heat emanating from the basement, and as the floor’s wooden beams weakened, the floor collapsed, taking ten firefighters into the burning cellar, and two more were impacted by flashover.
“That was a big loss for the fire department,” said Cooney, who is able to point himself out in a book he has created, which includes a photograph of a sea of firemen at the scene assisting in the recovery efforts.
“A lot of laws on building codes changed because of this fire,” Cooney added. “There was so much flooring and material it gave way.”
When Cooney saw the collapse of the 110 story Twin Towers buildings, he recalled, “They didn’t show you on TV what was really happening there.”
He told his wife he knew he had to help, and a few days later, he was on the scene assisting.
“The first hour I was in shock, I couldn’t believe the devastation,” said Cooney.
He spent his time there working with fire crews to extinguish small areas of fire, coming through seven and eight foot wide cement slabs.
While there, Cooney gathered small items, such as steel bolts from Tower 2, which are now part of a display he has created four years ago, that has traveled to local schools and other institutions.
Currently, his exhibit is on display at the Valley National Bank location on 115 Mill Street in Hackettstown (it was last at the Valley National Bank in Franklin). Previously, it has made its rounds to other locations such as Newton High School, Sussex County Community College, Vernon Township High School, Lakeland Bank, and the Warwick Public Library in New York.
Cooney describes the firefighters he has memorialized in his display as “another generation” however, he did know one of the lost.
First Deputy Fire Commissioner William Feehan, who was the department’s 23rd chief, was one of the ones who responded to the call. He was in the command center when it collapsed. He as taken out of the towers, and died in the hospital two days later.
“All he ever wanted to do was to be involved with the fire department,” said Cooney. “He was an incredible man.”
“There were probably over 70 of these firefighters who weren’t on duty, but came in,” Cooney continued.
One of the saddest memories of the recover effort Cooney took with him was the memory etched in his mind of a fellow firefighter wearing his helmet, with a photo of his son who he was looking for in the rubble affixed to it.
He also spent time with a police officer and his rescue dog, and the efforts to recover victims were thwarted by the difficulties in reaching them.
“The dog would get a scent for the location, and couldn’t do anything about it,” Cooney said.
Employees at the Valley National Bank branch said of the display they are “very happy to have it back.”
Thomas Cooney’s display will be at another Valley National Bank branch around July 4.
Click here to view Valley National Bank’s website.