Corrigan is a big man with a gentle demeanor. His white hair and beard belie the fact that he is only 51 years old.
Growing up in Queens as the second of seven children gave him a grounding in looking after people. “The younger ones were almost like nieces and nephews,” he said of his siblings. His paternal grandfather, a native of Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, lived with the family. “He was very much a part of my life,” he said. “I was like his favorite, so he took me everywhere. He even tried to teach me Irish, but it didn’t quite work.”
His grandfather introduced the children to Clan na Gael and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The latter was to play an important role in Corrigan’s life, serving as a meeting place for young Irish Americans.
“When I was young person, the Hibernians was my social life,” Corrigan said. “My cousins and friends were all in that group. There are even people I know on the job now whom I know originally from there.”
One day last week, on the third floor of the CSU offices on Lafayette Street, Mal, as Corrigan is known, was in demand. The offices are beside the Ladder 20 fire station, and there was a lot of activity. Corrigan dealt with each request and gave the distinct impression of being someone who is used to listening and thinking, rather than talking.
Corrigan was hired to develop the CSU and to provide the Fire Department with other programs that were needed. Before Sept. 11, the unit had a healthy client list of approximately 600 people. Since then, the numbers have multiplied and Corrigan’s work has expanded with it. The list of clients now stands at 4,313. The main problems he sees are addiction, grief and other mental problems.
Corrigan described how his work has changed. “I used to have 15 people working for me, I now have 350,” he said. “We have opened five new offices in the last year and a half.”
Corrigan had to relinquish the time he spent counseling in order to take on new duties and responsibilities. “It costs $10,000 a day to run this program,” he said. “I spend a lot of time raising money, administrating the money and finding out what programs are needed.”
A quick scan of the list of programs on offer reveals a counseling plan with sensitivity and foresight. Programs include weekend workshops for couples called “Couples Connection” and outreach days where Corrigan and his staff find out what is going on. He visits firehouses and talks to the firefighters, making sure to keep things general. “I would never ask a firefighter personal questions at a fire house because it would put him on the spot,” he said. “The guys may know everything about each other but may not feel comfortable talking.”
The CSU has existed in one form or other since 1966, when recovering alcoholics were asked to help other firefighters with alcohol problems. “The fire department has a long history of taking care of it’s own people,” Corrigan said. “If someone is having a hard time, someone else will be helping him out. It is the same all over the world.”
Corrigan’s father was a firefighter in Queens for 34 years, but it never appealed to him as a career. Instead, he planned to become a priest and only changed his mind when he was 21. By that time, he had graduated from Cathedral College with a BA of Psychology. “I had no fall-back plan,” he said. “A BA in psychology is not a degree that gets you a job.
He resumed a summer job with the airlines, paid off his college debts and made up his mind to be a nurse. “I like taking care of people,” he said. Corrigan went back to school, got his BS in nursing, and earned his license. “I worked in ER and trauma, all the exciting places,” he said.
Corrigan did not stop there. “I did a Masters in Mental Health Nursing and cut a deal with the government,” he said. “They paid for me to go to school and in exchange I had to work for them.” That arrangement resulted in Corrigan working for the Veterans Administration as director of two mental health units that specialized in addiction, alcoholism treatment and post traumatic stress disorder.
“You are dealing with men who are living with nightmares and flashbacks. They were mainly Vietnam veterans,” he said.
He applied for other jobs, answering a blind box advertisement in the New York Times. He got a call for an interview and was delighted that the job offer was from the fire department. “I even knew the guy who interviewed me,” Corrigan said.
Corrigan got the job and was given carte blanche to develop the CSU. “For 20 years I have made this job what I wanted it to be and I have put everything I have ever learned into play in the last 16 months,” he said..
The CSU provides training and placements for graduate school students who want to learn about Employee Assistance Programs. One such student was John Marchini. The 42-year-old Coleraine native started his placement with the CSU on Sept. 10, 2001. Corrigan offered him a reassignment but he wanted to stay. “The work was interesting and being Irish helped,” Marchini said. “There are so many Irish in the fire department.” Marchini is full of admiration for Corrigan, whom he describes as being an incredible director. “I have never seen anyone so committed, he gets the job done,” he said. Corrigan asked Marchini to stay on and he accepted gladly.
Firefighting is quite a macho job and it can be difficult for firefighters to ask for help, Corrigan said. “People are shy, so families can often be the primary motivator,” he said. “The majority ring me and say, ‘I don’t think I have a problem, but my wife says I have to do something or she’ll throw me out.’ “
Corrigan gets little relief from the strains of the job. For the first four months after Sept. 11, he lived in his office, sleeping on a fold-out bed his brother gave him. Now, he works approximately 70 hours a week. His family is very important to him and his two daughters, Patricia, who’s 23, and Alison, 20, have spent time helping him with his paperwork. They live in Bellerose, Queens.
Corrigan also has the support of his wife of 27 years. “Before Twin Towers, the two people I would talk to if things were bothering me were my wife, Liz, and my best friend, John, who is a priest,” Corrigan said. “Both work for the fire department. She is a nurse liaison for the FD Medical Services Unit, so her work life and my work life are very connected. John is a fire department chaplain. It was hard for us, because the few hours [that] we were free, we were all in the same emotional place.”
Post-9/11, Corrigan has little time to relax, but says that even if he did, he would find it difficult. “I used to read a lot but find that I can’t concentrate now,” he said. He doesn’t drink, saying, “It’s an aversion therapy; I have seen people here for 20 years messing up their lives with alcohol.” He does, however, make time for his favorite football team, the New York Giants. “I am a season ticket holder and last year I didn’t get to see any of the games,” he said. “This year, I have seen maybe half of them.”
Despite his grueling work schedule, Corrigan remains as committed as ever. “My desire to do everything I can do is very high,” he said. Asked whether he would envision moving on in the future, he said, “Where else would I go?
This place is part of my life.”