The world will never be the same for Americans after the events of September 11, 2001.
And it will never be the same for Tom, Jody and Thomas Clarke of Maple Lake.
Tom Clarke, a former New York City firefighter, made a personal journey to the World Trade Center’s Ground Zero after the terrorist assault brought the Twin Towers down last year. His mission was to stand side by side with friends and relatives on rescue crews as they searched for survivors or reclaimed the bodies of the nearly 3,000 lives lost.
Upon his return to Maple Lake, Tom told the story of his time at Ground Zero to civic and school groups, he was featured in a story by reporter Jeff Baillon of KMSP TV, and he was honored by Wright-Hennepin Electric and Modern Woodmen Life Insurance for his heroic efforts in New York.
But as they were putting closure on Tom’s efforts at the World Trade Center, the Clarke’s comfortable world came tumbling down.
When Tom’s mom and dad came from New York for a visit this summer, the Clarke’s found evidence of bleeding and Tom confronted his father. Tom’s father called his wife and Jody out to the deck at the Clarke’s home on Maple Lake and told his family he was afraid he had cancer but had never gone to see a doctor about it.
“We put him on a plane to New York and he was diagnosed with bladder cancer and stage four prostate cancer,” Tom said.
And Tom sees a link with Sept. 11.“My dad lost a lot of friends at Ground Zero,” Tom said. “I think the stress of that brought on his cancer.”But the Clarke’s bad news didn’t stop there.
Shortly after September 11, 2001, Jody was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. After nearly a year of ineffective treatment, a colonoscopy on July 3 found extensive signs of cancer. She was immediately rushed into surgery where surgeons removed half of her colon, her ovaries and a portion of her small intestine.And the prognosis? “I have to go through six months or better of chemotherapy, ‘and then we’ll talk about it,’ is what they say,” Jody said.
Jody has become involved in a clinical trial for a new drug that provides hope, but has been hard on her.“It’s been tough,” she said. “It makes me pretty sick, but Tom has been my rock.”
However Tom, too, has had his share of health problems. This past winter, Tom came down with pneumonia, which the doctors said was likely caused by the particulate found at Ground Zero. “We were also up to our ankles in asbestos, there’s no doubt about that,” Tom added.
With his health restored, Tom had planned to join his cousin, Steve Spall, a fire department captain, engineer and 9/11 FEMA liaison, at Ground Zero on September 11 for the memorial ceremonies. But now that Jody needs him home, his return to Ground Zero will have to wait.
“I talk to Steve all the time,” Tom said. “Sometimes I feel I was at Ground Zero more for Steve than the fire department with the bond we created.”
But talking about their shared experiences is getting harder to do. Tom produced letters and information sent to him from John Hart, the son of the man portrayed in the Bruce Willis film, “Hart’s War.” Hart was seeking to create a film about ordinary heroes, but Tom declined.
“I don’t know why I turned it down,” Tom said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable with it.”
Although Tom is shutting a door on that experience in his life, the anger over the terrorist assault remains.“I’d go to war right now if they wanted me,” Tom said. “If they go to war with Iraq, I’d be there in a second if they’d take me, just like every other firefighter in New York.
“I wish they would go to war with Iraq just so I could be there.”
It is the memory of Ground Zero that keeps that anger alive.
“When the first firefighter was brought down in the bucket, it left an impression on me I’ll never forget. We spent so much time setting up the crane and the bucket and all we wanted was one live person. “All we got was bodies.
“I love this country and I’d do anything for it,” he said. “I’d go to war in a second or whatever it takes to get rid of terrorists. It seems like a lot of people don’t understand that, but if they had come off the pile at Ground Zero, they would.”
One thing that Tom has agreed to do to commemorate the anniversary of September 11 is grant a request by Channel 9 TV reporter Ballion to have Jody read a story Tom wrote to his son about Ground Zero.
Then the family will move on and away from September 11 to confront the challenges that face them now.
But Jody said that through their health struggles, people have been there for them.“We’ve had such a good community of people around us,” she said, with Tom telling of parents from St. Francis School in Buffalo, where Thomas attends, bringing a variety of food for the family every night.
Tom said he was consumed by guilt at first, thinking that the health problems of Jody and his father may have been caused by some contaminate he brought back from Ground Zero. But after talking with doctors, he now knows that’s not the case.
And after watching his wife and his father face health problems with courage and forge ahead with a goal of defeating cancer, Tom said heroes are everywhere in life and don’t necessarily have to wear a helmet or a badge.