The Brothers McDonald
If not for a scheduling change, which went into effect on September 10, Tom McDonald would have been working on September 11. A member of the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit in Harlem, McDonald probably would have been one of the first rescue workers to arrive at the Twin Towers that terrible day.
He also knows he probably would have died, as three men from his squad did. “I felt real guilty for a while,” admits the 31-year-old, who was home when heard about the attacks. He immediately got in his car, and arrived at Ground Zero roughly 15 minutes after the second tower collapsed.
In the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks, McDonald — an ex-Marine who served during Operation Desert Storm — worked 16-hour days at the smoldering Trade Center site, At the same time, his brother Steven McDonald — the hero cop left wheelchair-bound by a 1986 shooting — was counseling and praying with Ground Zero workers. Especially those who shared his grief over the loss of FDNY chaplain Mychal Judge, who was a close friend.
“Not a day does go by when we don’t think about Father Mychal,” recalls Steven, who was among those who claimed the beloved chaplain’s body a day after the attacks.
In their own unique ways, both McDonald brothers have been helping New York City and the nation heal in the wake of September 11.
Tom finally got a break from his round-the-clock duties at Ground Zero in December. Well, sort of.
He was among a small group of rescue workers who took an excruciating flight to Afghanistan to meet with troops on the front line. “We were sleeping on rice bags inside the plane with our earplugs in,” he recalled. “It was four days of flying, and we had just ten hours on the ground [in Afghanistan].”
Along with four firemen and two Emergency Service Unit workers, McDonald flew into Bagram Airbase, 25 miles noah of Kabul, and met with troops, including soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division from upstate New York.
Had Tom had any reservations, in the wake of the WTC attacks, about flying — into a war-ravaged region, no less?
“None at all,” McDonald said. And though that wasn’t quite the case with his wife, Keri Ann, the experience was well worth it.
“I wanted to see the soldiers,” said McDonald, who served a total of four years with the Marines.
Though months have now passed since the terrorist attacks, the Tom McDonald family, including children Shane Michael, 7, and Maeve Marie, 4, still mourn the passing of so many friends.
“The kids knew a lot of the [victims], too, people who’d come over my house…. We’ve all been looking out for the [victims’] families, doing work at their houses. Whatever we can do.”
As for Steven McDonald, the terror and loss of September 11 have given his work a new urgency. McDonald, who is always making speeches and appearances in New York City and beyond, says his message of peace and reconciliation is more relevant than ever before.
“My talk is about non violence…. That bullet changed my life forever. But I try and tell people that it’s just as deadly, the way they talk to each other, if they are taking pleasure out of other people’s pain.”
Buoyed by strong faith, Steven has also been sharing with audiences a poignant prayer written by Father Mychal Judge.
“Lord, take me where you want me to go/ let me meet who you want me to meet / tell me what you want me to say,” McDonald says, reciting part of the prayer.
“In 1986 [when McDonald was wounded], the Lord was taking me where he wanted me to go, knowing all the good that would come from the bad. I have to believe the same was true for all the victims [of September 11].”
He adds: “There’s a lot of heartache out there. I don’t know if people are ready to talk about forgiveness just yet. But maybe through my experience at some point, they will be.” ♦