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McCandless man 'bred to be a firefighter'

Tony LaRussa
| Wednesday, March 28, 2007

While growing up, Tom Tunney was fascinated by the idea of becoming a mortician. The career choice was even listed in his yearbook when he graduated from Allegheny High School in 1938.

But growing up in "the ward" -- Pittsburgh's 21st Ward on the North Side -- it was almost inevitable that he would end up in a career in public safety, said his son, Bob Tunney.

"He grew up in a tough, heavily Irish neighborhood where it seems everybody became a police officer or a firefighter," said Tunney. "It's almost as if my dad was bred to be a firefighter."

Thomas F. Tunney, of McCandless, formerly of the North Side, died Sunday, March 25, 2007. He was 87.

Born Feb. 20, 1920, Mr. Tunney joined the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau shortly after turning 21, the minimum age. He primarily worked as a tillerman, who is responsible for steering the back of a ladder truck.

He was stationed at Engine and Truck Co. 47 on the North Side when he retired in 1968.

About 18 months after joining the fire bureau, he was drafted into the Army during World War II and served in the 452nd Air Service Group, 3rd Army Air Corps.

While home in Pittsburgh for a three-day leave, Mr. Tunney married Ann Connolly, whose father worked in the same North Side firehouse where Mr. Tunney took his first job. They were together for 60 years until Mrs. Tunney's death on Nov. 10, 2005.

Bob Tunney, 47, of McCandless, said his father was always low-key about the dangers he faced as a firefighter.

"My dad's philosophy was what happened on the job, stayed in the firehouse. He didn't want to worry my mother, so he didn't talk much about his work while we were growing up.

"It wasn't until after he retired, and we would go to retirement parties for some of the guys he worked with, that I learned about how dedicated he was, and the risks he was willing to take to help people," said Tunney, who has been a firefighter for 30 years and has a son who is a firefighter.

It was during one of those parties that Tunney first learned that his father nearly died fighting a fire in 1967 while on the roof of a three-story building.

"He slipped on some ice and grabbed onto the chimney, but it collapsed. He rolled down the roof but managed to grab onto a box gutter to save himself."

Tunney said his father did not want to retire, but when he was nearing 50, he knew he could no longer give 100 percent. Anxious to keep working, Mr. Tunney attended night classes and became a stationary engineer.

He took a job at the Hilton Hotel, where he worked until age 65. He was a member of the Engineers Union Local 95.

In addition to his son, Mr. Tunney is survived by four daughters, Joan Burroughs, Kathleen Tunney and Maryanne Brezina, all of Cranberry, Butler County, and Deborah Dunker, of Shaler; and 13 grandchildren.

In addition to his wife, he was preceded in death by a son, Thomas Tunney; two brothers, James and Edward Tunney; and a sister, Catherine Johnson.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today and Thursday at the George A. Thoma Funeral Home Inc., 10418 Perry Highway, McCandless.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Friday at Risen Lord Church, North Side.

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