Thomas J. Fennessy, a retired NYPD sergeant who worked in the 9/11 recovery efforts at Ground Zero, died Friday at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola after a battle with the brain cancer glioblastoma. He was 64.
Born in Brooklyn in 1955, Fennessy joined the NYPD in 1982, following in the footsteps of his father, James Joseph Fennessy, and several other family members. It was the only career he ever wanted, his family said.
“It was his pride and joy. It was his calling,” said his daughter, Kristen Fennessy, 29, of East Meadow. “He came from a big line of blue.”
He retired in July 2002, last working for the NYPD’s auto larceny unit, and went on to a second career as an insurance fraud investigator.
Fennessy was assigned to and volunteered at Ground Zero in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and, family members said, the work took a mental toll on him.
“He never ever talked about it,” said Elaine Fennessy, his wife of 35 years. “He couldn’t talk about it.”
Thousands of first responders like Fennessy have cancer and a host of other ailments as a result of breathing in toxic air in the weeks and months after the Twin Towers collapsed.
Fennessy, aware that other Ground Zero responders were falling ill, admitted later that he acknowledged every year after 2001 that he went without getting sick, according to his brother, Joseph Fennessy, 69, of Wantagh.
“He always felt he was beating it,” said the older Fennessy, who serves as chairman of South Nassau Communities Hospital’s board of directors.
The brain cancer diagnosis came around the 2017 holiday season.
He was misdiagnosed with a stroke in October following an episode in which he began slurring his speech. Doctors discovered the tumor after a similar event a month later.
"Tom never complained,” his wife said. “He may have been frustrated by his illness, but he always worked hard to do what he had to do. Doctors’ appointments, surgeries, treatments — nothing would stand in his way. He endured this journey with such strength and dignity. And had an incredible support system that battled right there with him through every step. I truly believe it extended his time here with us."
His treatment was covered by the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, his daughter said.
Family members took care of him in his final months, much like the way he took care of his mother, Mary, who lived with him for 20 years before she died in December at age 101, his brother said. Their father died when Thomas Fennessy was 12.
On Sunday his family remembered the East Meadow father and grandfather for the passion he brought to all activities, be it sailing or serving as the unofficial neighborhood handyman. Often spotted with a signature pipe in his mouth, Fennessy loved taking his sailboat, the Wind Charmer, out on the water near the family’s Sag Harbor home, tinkering with mechanics and making others laugh.
“He was the funniest person I think everybody ever knew,” his daughter said. “I never heard anybody say a bad word about my dad.”
Besides his wife and daughter, Fennessy is survived by his son, Scott, and daughter-in-law, Jen, of Riverdale, and two grandchildren, Sebastian and Logan.
Visiting hours will be Tuesday, 7 to 9:30 p.m., and Wednesday, 2 to 4:30 and 7 to 9:30 p.m., at Fredrick J. Chapey & Sons Funeral Home in Bethpage. A funeral Mass will be said Thursday at 9:45 a.m. in St. Raphael Roman Catholic Church in East Meadow. Burial will follow in St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale.