Never Forgotten: How 9/11 Sparked a Family Reunion

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 Not long after September 11, 2001, a day that changed America forever, Debra McCarthy was at One Police Plaza. She had recently returned to work after maternity leave from the NYPD’s undercover narcotics division. In a twist of fate, McCarthy had originally been scheduled to return to work on September 11. But after being unable to find childcare, her husband, FDNY Battalion Commander Thomas McCarthy, suggested she take an extra week off. On September 11, her husband also had the day off. That fateful day, Debra would lose 12 people that she knew. Her husband lost 75.

That tremendous loss was felt in the weeks after when McCarthy noticed a face that caught her eye at One Police Plaza. A woman, dressed in full uniform, who looked like her. “It was so startling. Nobody had ever looked like me. I told my coworkers that sergeant looks like me, and they agreed. They said it was Sergeant Mary Young. Sgt. Young was going to a funeral for both of her cousins who had worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and died on 9/11—Peter Milano and Patrick Sullivan of Breezy Point.

Not wanting to disturb her, Debra didn’t say anything to Mary. But after a time of such great loss, seeing a familiar-looking face set her on a path to recovering her own losses. McCarthy, who had been adopted, didn’t know much about her birth parents other than her mother was a security trader. The thought that maybe her birth mother had also worked in the World Trade Center, had crossed her mind. At age 31, McCarthy began the search for her birth family.

Starting with the place where she was first put in the care of the sisters of Angel Guardian Home in Brooklyn, McCarthy began her search. An online search then connected her to a group called Search Angels. Through them, she was able to locate her birth mother, Maureen, who in turn, connected her to her birth father, Charles Sullivan. After all, Maureen still had his number. Although the couple was no longer together, every year on the birthday of the daughter they gave up for adoption when she was two, they would call each other. “My father had told my mother, if she ever tries to get in contact with you, to let me know,” Debra said. Her mother did. While McCarthy’s mother now lives in North Carolina, McCarthy found that her father’s family was a little closer to home.

“When I talked to him, he said, ‘do you know where Breezy Point is?’” McCarthy recalled. She knew the place well. After all, it was where she worked when she first joined the NYPD in 1994. “I was on the day tour for the 100th Precinct and my sector was the Rockaway/Breezy Point area,” McCarthy said. And when she wasn’t working, in the summer, she spent time at her cabana at the Breezy Point Surf Club. Little did McCarthy know that she summered in and patrolled the neighborhood where some of her aunts, uncles and cousins resided.

In 2003, about a year and a half after 9/11, McCarthy returned to Breezy Point, this time for a reunion with her newly found family, including her father. They gathered at the home of her cousin, Al Milano, which overlooks the Manhattan skyline where the Twin Towers had stood. Peter Milano, Al’s brother, was one of the family members who perished on 9/11. That day, Debra became part of a family of 21 first cousins and 40 second cousins. But among the many new cousins, McCarthy ran into at least one familiar face. That of Mary Young, the woman she spotted at One Police Plaza, and she was formally introduced to her new first cousin. At the reunion, she also met the family of her other cousin who had died on 9/11, Patrick Sullivan.

“My Aunt Mary and Uncle Patrick Sullivan came up to me and were like, ‘Debra, we lost our son and nephew when the towers collapsed and now God has brought you into our lives,’” McCarthy recalls. “I said to her ‘you really came at a good time,’” Mary Sullivan said. “It was amazing that she found the family, but the fact that she found us after we had lost our nephew and son, it was really heartwarming for us to find her.”

In the time since that reunion, Debra, her husband and her three children, have made up for lost time. So much so, that she has even joined the Sullivan family during their winter trips to Florida. “She’s a very big part of our family. We text all the time. Our daughters are around the same age and they’ve become friends on Instagram,” Mary and Patrick’s son, Gerry Sullivan said. “When you look at this, it’s beyond joyous that we reunited, but there’s also that sadness of the time we didn’t have in our lives, and she didn’t have the opportunity to meet some of the family who passed before that.” Despite this, Debra has found ways to become closer to those who were lost. One year she joined a family trip to her late grandmother’s birthplace on Gola Island in Ireland. Like their faces etched into the glass of the Breezy Point 9/11 Memorial, Peter Milano and Patrick Sullivan, are also memorialized on a bench in Gola, which McCarthy made sure to visit during her trip.

Debra is now one of the many family members who joins the annual family reunion held at an aunt’s home in New Jersey. “Debra’s such a special girl. She’s so accomplished and has such a way about her,” Mary Sullivan said. “She visits us often and we know her children and husband really well. She has truly become a great part of our family. She’s like a daughter to us.” And the feeling is mutual. “They’re awesome people, the salt of the earth. I’m very fortunate to call them my family,” McCarthy said.

Although it took some time to find her family, like the saying goes each September 11, Debra McCarthy was “Never Forgotten.” The phrase will be the title of McCarthy’s book that she has written about her remarkable story of loss, love and family. “I really hope this gives people some hope because there was so much loss on 9/11, and not that anything good came out of it, but I hope my story gives hope to people that good things do happen,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy is currently seeking publishers for her completed book. If anyone is interested, McCarthy can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 By Katie McFadden

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