September 3, 2021

Never forget: Remembering 9/11

Indy firefighter new on the job on 9/11 integrates work and faith

Indianapolis Fire Department firefighter Thomas McKiernan sits on Aug. 25 on the bumper of a fire engine in Station 25 in Indianapolis. McKiernan was on his second day on the job as a firefighter on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Indianapolis Fire Department firefighter Thomas McKiernan sits on Aug. 25 on the bumper of a fire engine in Station 25 in Indianapolis. McKiernan was on his second day on the job as a firefighter on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Thomas McKiernan was on his second day on the job as a firefighter in Indianapolis when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred.

On that day, 343 firefighters died in the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.

Yet the enormous sacrifice and loss experienced by his brother firefighters in New York never led McKiernan to question the career he had just entered.

“It gave me the sense that this was absolutely what I wanted to do,” said McKiernan, 43, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis. “I had a sense of duty that I was going to carry on what they left at ground zero.”

This dedication to service and self-sacrifice was instilled in him as he grew up in Cincinnati as the son of a police officer and hospital nurse.

“Firemen aren’t just made in the academy,” McKiernan said. “They’re made before ever getting hired. There’s a sense of service, duty and love for their fellow man, a desire to serve others—that’s how I was brought up. So, I was halfway a firefighter before I ever got hired. I could never walk away from it. No way.”

He also recalled sage advice from a retired Fire Department of the City of New York firefighter who taught at the University of Cincinnati, where McKiernan had majored in fire science. The instructor told him, “If I walked into a shift one night and I met my guardian angel, and he said, ‘You’re going to die tonight,’ I would say, ‘OK. What’s for dinner?’ ” McKiernan said.

As the years have gone on after 9/11, McKiernan has integrated more and more his Catholic faith with his work as a firefighter for the Indianapolis Fire Department, trying to see Christ in everyone he serves.

“We meet all sorts of people, but usually on the worst day of their lives,” McKiernan said. “It’s easy to find Christ, say, in a single mom whose car has caught on fire and now she doesn’t have any way to get to work. It’s harder to find Christ in, say, the guy who’s overdosed for the fourth time this month and won’t do anything about his addiction.

“You really have to delve into your faith to find Christ in everyone. And I strive very hard to treat everyone with the dignity that God demands that we treat all of his creation.”

At the same time, this interweaving of his faith and his work has helped him live out more fully his vocation as a husband, father of seven children and Benedictine oblate of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, dedicating himself to praying the Liturgy of the Hours and reading from the Rule of St. Benedict daily.

“I have learned to put a lot of trust in Christ,” McKiernan said. “The department trains us very well. But there have been times when I’m crawling down blind through a smoke-filled, incredibly hot hallway in a house, and I’m doing what I’ve been trained to do, but I’m also saying, ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’

“If I can trust Jesus in that moment, I can trust Jesus when it comes to complications in a pregnancy with my wife, or dealing with my son’s latest attitude problem. My job has made me trust Christ all the more.”

Twenty years after he was a newly minted firefighter on Sept. 11, 2001, McKiernan keeps lessons he learned that day in his heart and mind.

“No matter what, we can always come together,” he said. “We have a common factor in that we’re human. Whatever walk of life we have, we have the ability to console and support each other.

“We’ve learned each other’s humanity a lot. But now we’re losing that again and we need to be reminded that all of us are human. All of us hurt. All of us love. And we just need to stop, listen to each other and realize the humanity in each person again.” †

 

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