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Minnesota Fire Chief's Ground Zero Relief Effort Inspires Life of Service


Brooklyn Park Fire Chief T. John Cunningham, who also is the city's Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director and serves as the President of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, is being recognized during Sunday's Vikings-Packers game as the U.S. Bank Hometown Hero. Below is more of his story.

EAGAN, Minn. – The sky was a stunning, clear blue on Sept. 11, 2001.

T. John Cunningham vividly remembers that detail – "there was maybe one cloud in the sky" – when he recalls that morning.

A student at Fairfield University in Connecticut, Cunningham had been getting ready to walk to his next class when he heard over the news that a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Cunningham at that point – like many – didn't realize the magnitude of the situation.

"Mind you, this was before cell phones were really popular – I think I had a beeper that I could get some news or information on," he said.

Cunningham continued to his classroom, which happened to be one of few that had computers and Internet access.

"I went online, a little slow-speed connection, and was able to pull up the news and discovered at that point that a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, the [South] tower," he said. "I knew at that point that we were under attack – this was no accident."


From a young age, Cunningham developed a passion for firefighting and becoming a first responder. He became a Fire Explorer at age 13 and by 18 was serving as a volunteer firefighter in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The fire service became a second family for Cunningham, an only child.

So when terrorists attacked the U.S. that tragic Tuesday, Cunningham felt called to action. He drove the 40 minutes back to his Greenwich, all the while utilizing his radio scanner to listen to live radio transmissions from New York City firefighters and police officers as they entered the buildings on rescue attempts.

"I was listening live as the first tower came crashing down – and heard the silence that ensued, of trying to determine what happened over the airways," Cunningham said. "And at that moment, I knew I needed to get back. As a firefighter, we train for the worst-case scenario. I didn't know what my future held, but I knew … I needed to be back at my fire department to get ready and offer any help."

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Firefighters from across Connecticut mobilized to Yonkers Raceway Stadium and readied to be deployed to NYC.

Cunningham has a unique skill set, having gone through technical rescue operation and training – from dive team to structural collapse – and being a member of the Connecticut Urban Search & Rescue Team.

A building collapse, albeit at a much larger scale, was among the things he and his coworkers had trained for.

Cunningham's crew ultimately wasn't deployed that day, as news of Flight 93's divergence and crash, along with the attack on the Pentagon, raised the threat of potential additional attacks.

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"It was a few days after, and it was still sitting in the pit of my stomach that – 'There are civilians that are missing,' " Cunningham remembered. "[And] I also knew there were firefighters missing. This is our family. These were our brothers and sisters that we work alongside. It doesn't matter what patch or badge that we wear."

And so Cunningham and his best friend Dominick Briganti, a fellow volunteer firefighter, took a train into New York City, got off and headed straight to Ground Zero.

The two quickly met up with an FDNY firefighter, Billy Quick.

"I just remember him – he was the big guy there, and he was taking a sledgehammer to a big piece of concrete to get his turnout jacket unstuck from this pillar that was crushed," Cunningham said. "He was like, 'What are you guys up to?' 'Well, we're here to work.' And he said, 'Let's go.' That was the first long shift."

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To this day, Cunningham can't be certain how many hours they spent at Ground Zero that day, crossing paths with other firefighters from as far away as Portland, Oregon, who had come to help.

"This was such a tragedy for everyone, and our goal was still to rescue," Cunningham said.

Tragically, they found no survivors that day but held onto hope that they may find victims in the collapse.

As a weary Cunningham and Briganti left that day, they turned away from the tangle of twisted metal and rounded a corner into a secure area. They saw hundreds of people lining the streets, chanting "U-S-A" and holding signs: God Bless the United States. God Bless our Heroes.

"It was truly about being the United States of America. We were united," Cunningham emphasized.

Out of the crowd suddenly ran a young child who handed blue ribbons to Briganti and Cunningham. Inscribed on each ribbon was the phrase, "Who I am makes a difference."

Twenty-one years later, that ribbon sits prominently in Cunningham's office.

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"That's my guiding principle today. Because every minor action that we do helps someone else," he said. "That's been a principle that I've lived by for my entire career – I'm here to make a difference.

"As a firefighter, I took that to heart," Cunningham added. "I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to the fire service, to helping others, and then to being a leader in the fire service."

Cunningham has done exactly that.

He's dedicated his entire life to providing aid to those who need it through the fire department, relocating to Minnesota in 2009 to serve as a firefighter in Elk River. Four years ago, he assumed his current role as the Brooklyn Park Fire Chief.

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Cunningham takes seriously the responsibility to ensure his team is supported physically, mentally and emotionally.

He's particularly passionate about providing mental health sources for first responders, an area he feels is greatly lacking.

"[There are many] mental ailments that our first responders suffer with," Cunningham said. "We see things that people should never see in their lifetimes. As President of Minnesota State Fire Chiefs and as a fire chief of one of the largest cities in the state, it's been my personal commitment to make sure that we provide the mental health resources to all of our firefighters."

Cunningham additionally prioritizes healthcare for his firefighters, making sure they have access to cancer prevention methodologies and treatments, as well as addressing heart attacks and heart disease that plague the industry.

"We have to take care of one another," he said emotionally. "I want to make sure that every firefighter that works for me or in this state goes home at the end of their shift or at the end of their career. They deserve that."

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On Sept. 11, 2001, the lives of 2,996 Americans were lost – including 343 firefighters.

What Cunningham wants us to remember is that the death toll and devastation because of the attacks extends far beyond that initial number.

According to Michael Crane, MD, at Mount Sinai Hospital, as of September 2018, nearly 10,000 first responders and others who were in the World Trade Center area had been diagnosed with cancer. More than 2,000 deaths had been attributed to 9/11 illnesses.

"We've lost hundreds of brave men and women who have served their country – whether it's rescue and recovery efforts, countless days and nights working on the pile – the firefighters and everyone in public safety were not going to give up until everyone was brought home," Cunningham said.

Among those lost in the aftermath was Quick, the firefighter Cunningham and Briganti met at Ground Zero.

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"There was a bond formed that day that's unbreakable," Cunningham said. "Frankly, there are memories I wish I didn't have – and that are still tucked away deep in the back of my mind. But those are overpowered by all the good that I saw – and the relationships and the friendships that I made that day.

"Billy Quick became a good friend of not only myself but Dominick and everybody else that worked that day," he continued. "He was a firefighter's firefighter. He put the needs of everyone else first."

Cunningham and Briganti, as well as many others, have kept in touch over the years. When Quick contracted cancer and worsened significantly, a group of first responders flew in to surprise him at his home.

That evening, Quick passed away.

"I got to say goodbye to him," Cunningham said. "We got to let him know that he did make a difference in the lives of everyone, and especially with me. He instilled that courage and the conviction to be a leader and to continue to put our firefighters first."

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Since the attacks on 9/11, a favored slogan has been "Never forget," encouraging everyone to remember the events of that day and to honor those who died.

The sentiments of that saying sometimes get lost, however, among matters that daily divide Americans.

Cunningham is urging us to truly remember the meaning of "Never forget."

"Immediately after the terrorist attack 21 years ago … we came together as a country – to mourn together, to cry together and then to really rally together and fight together, and to support one another," he said. "The outpouring of support I saw for the first responder community, especially, was nothing like I've ever seen.

"The tragedy that day really brought out the best in the United States – people just helping each other. Strangers helping each other," Cunningham added.

"I can't help but reflect back on that day 21 years ago and say, 'We need to get back to what it was to be a united country,' " he continued. "There can be so many things that divide us today, but we're all still the United States of America. We all live here, and we all have an obligation to make this world a better place. That was my commitment I made that day, and I continue to strive for that through my work and personal life."

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Throughout his career in fire service, Cunningham – a fervent Vikings fan – has likened the occupation to a football team and his specific role to a coach.

He and his firefighters have to practice. They must be in peak performance at all times.

"Because our game day is every day," Cunningham emphasized. "When someone calls 911, they're expecting the peak performance, the utmost professionalism and someone that can solve every problem that they have. As a chief, I'm that coach; I'm that CEO of the organization. I'm that mentor, I'm that leader, I'm the manager – and it's my job to make sure we have the best equipment, the best facilities, the best training and, most importantly, the best people on our team.

"It's the people that make the organization. That's why I love my job," he added. "We're not there to judge. We're there to serve. … There are no second chances. We can't lose the game we're in. We have to win."

As the Vikings start their 2022 regular season, Cunningham is encouraging Minnesotans to come together.

"Let's be that United States of America. Let's be one. Let's be that country of service, and of brotherhood and sisterhood to each other," he said. "And let's also have fun. Let's win. Let's be successful at what we do. Let's be that great, winning team that I know we are."