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Finding family and new hope after 9/11

The plaque on Gola Island dedicated to Patrick Sullivan and Peter Milano. Photo by Madeline O'Boyle


By Ray O'Hanlon

It was a most natural human reaction. After 9/11 countless people, even many who had no direct connection to those lost in the attack on America, sought solace in any way, in any place, that they could.

Sometimes it was with other people and sometimes it was in places, often remote, peaceful, far removed from the scenes of tragedy that, even nineteen years later, remain vivid in the memory and mind's eye.

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New York-based journalist Gwendolyn "Wendy" Bounds found solace after 9/11 in Guinan's, an Irish country store and pub on the banks of the Hudson River in Putnam County. She wrote a bestselling book, "Little Chapel on the River," that offered, yes, solace and hope.

For Debra McCarthy, a most special place of solace and hope is a small island off the coast of County Donegal.

On September 11, 2001, Debra was working as an undercover detective with the NYPD.

But she was not on duty that day. Rather, she was at home in Middle Village, Queens, on maternity leave with her eight-month-old daughter.

Debra was married to an FDNY Battalion Chief, Thomas McCarthy. He survived 9/11 after rushing to the Twin Towers along with first responders from all over the city, only to be tasked with compiling the list of FDNY dead, the forever mourned 343.

As Debra tells it, after returning to work she saw a female sergeant who looked very much like her.

"This was unusual because I was an adoptee. I decided to do a search for my birth family," she says.

Debra would be ahead of most in her search. She was, after all, a police detective. She found members of her New York family in Breezy Point, Rockaway, where, as it happened, she had once been a rookie cop.

Debra would reunite with her birth family on a beach with a view of the Manhattan skyline.

At this spot, her aunt and uncle told her that they had lost their son Patrick Sullivan and their nephew Peter Teague Milano, who had both worked in Cantor Fitzgerald.

They had watched the Twin Towers collapse from that beach on that blue-skied September morning.

Debra didn't have to watch to appreciate the scale of what had happened. Before the NYPD she had worked as a flight attendant and could all too easily imagine the devastation caused by large fuel-laden passenger aircraft being crashed at speed into the World Trade Center towers.

As so many New Yorkers had to do that morning, Debra, for hours, had to pray that her husband was alive. She had no idea at what time he had arrived at the Twin Towers, or where exactly he was. He had been making for the doomed Command Center.

As she recounts, she feared the worst. It would be nearly a day later before Debra would learn that her husband had survived.

The search for the missing and the counting of the dead would be Tom’s daily work for weeks and months afterwards.

But as Debra herself says, her search the missing in her own life was just beginning.

When Debra returned to her precinct after maternity leave she happened to pass by that female sergeant who bore a striking resemblance to herself.

She recalls that the mysterious circumstances surrounding the details of her birth, biological parents, and early life, had taken on a new urgency in the wake of 9/11.

While Tom searched for victims, Debra undertook her own search to find her family. This would be the investigation of a lifetime.

It would, she says, demand all of her detective skills, would follow an impossible series of coincidences and connections, would depend on the kindness of strangers, and a little bit of luck.

Debra's search would take her from Queens and Brooklyn across the ocean to Ireland, to County Donegal, to Gola Island off Gweedore.

On Gola Island, Debra would find her cousin, Eddie Joe and his sister Sile. They would show Debra her grandmother's cottage.

"Her name was Mary Sweeney Sullivan and she left Gola as a very young teen on a skiff to Gweedore, and from there headed for America," says Debra.

The very worst of days had sent Debra on a search for family in former days.

That search would take her to a place where people had once looked westward to America with hope in their hearts.

Debra had come from America and on Gola found family and new hope.

Today, there is a stone bench on Gola Island dedicated to Patrick Sullivan and Peter Milano.

Debra is working on a book about her story, her family story with all its new and once unimagined chapters.

And that NYPD sergeant who looked so familiar? It turned out that she was yet another lost cousin - lost and then found.