Adjusting to a Life on Hold

Two years after being injured by a devastating blast, a determined student struggles to reclaim his dreams.

Gregory McCullough's mottled hands are a
visible result of his explosion injuries.

Two years ago, filled with passion and drive, Gregory McCullough enjoyed the challenges and rewards of his daily life: classes at New York City College of Technology, mentoring kids, attending church, mastering martial arts, towing cars to save money for school and his own car.

The greatest challenge was yet to come. On July 18, 2007, McCullough, then just 21, was at the wheel of a red tow truck during rush hour in Manhattan when suddenly he was engulfed in the horrific Consolidated Edison steam pipe explosion that seared third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body.

Today, buttressed by faith, family and friends, McCullough struggles to recover from his devastating injuries, and to begin to reclaim his dreams. Remarkably, despite his medical condition and persistent pain, he is trying to keep up with his studies through CUNY's new School of Professional Studies online, though, "Sometimes I'm just too tired."

Had the accident not happened, he says, "I'd definitely be in school." City Tech "was a great learning environment. I would do my homework; I developed the discipline."

"The courage and determination that Gregory has shown . . . reflects the remarkable strength of his character and his faith. Gregory is a valued member of the City Tech family and we are all supportive ... and confident he will attain his goals," said City Tech President Russell K. Hotzler.

Before the explosion, McCullough was living with his mother and father in Canarsie, juggling evening and Saturday classes at City Tech; 12-hour shifts towing cars for a Bensonhurst company; martial arts lessons; and running a military cadet mentoring program for youth in Bushwick and a New York City Police Department Explorer Program to keep kids off the street.

He dreamed of becoming a Marine, then joining the FBI or U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He enrolled at City Tech in 2006 and took classes in the legal studies department before switching to liberal arts in 2007. He planned to transfer to John Jay College of Criminal Justice to study business management and criminal justice.

Those dreams are not dashed, although they are less certain now because of his extensive injuries, scarred body and the likelihood of a long road to recovery.

McCullough was at the New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center burn unit in a medically induced coma for more than two months to control his pain while doctors worked to save his life.

He has undergone a dozen operations and multiple skin grafts. There will be more surgeries and years of physical therapy, said his lawyer, Ken Thompson, of Thompson, Wigdor & Gilly.

In the boardroom at Thompson's Manhattan office on Aug. 12, in the presence of his mother, Tanya McCullough-Stewart, and father, Frank, McCullough talked about how he is coping with the rigors of his day-to-day life.

He wore sneakers and jeans with a short-sleeved blue shirt, revealing deeply scarred arms and hands mottled where the skin peeled off but camouflaging the extensive damage to the rest of his body. He used a cane to support his halting steps.

McCullough spoke softly, a broad smile lighting up his handsome features - miraculously unmarred - from time to time.

"I still get pains throughout my body," he said. "Some days I'm really tired. I have to have help," to button shoes, to put on socks. Even eating is difficult because "opening a soda can is a task in itself." Right-handed, "I had to teach myself how to write with my left hand," he said.

Being in the sun can be hazardous. "That bothers me, the heat.…It could be the middle of winter and I'll be hot, summer and I'll be cold. My body is still adjusting." Then there's the itching: "I can't scratch because I could damage my skin even more," he said, "and when you get a sensation back, it starts off as pain. I'm still going through the pain stage with my fingers and feet…for the most part, I try to be happy."

His new, 4-month-old brother helps. "I can be having a really bad day, I pick him up and he smiles at me and all that goes away."

He reads - "I like horror and suspense, and I watch the History Channel" - and friends drop by. He smiled when asked if he had a girlfriend, but declined to comment.

There are things that he misses. "I want to drive so bad," McCullough said. "I haven't been able to do sports - weight lifting and football," and the First Marine Cadet Corps kids are "always asking me, 'How're you doing, Sergeant Major, when are you coming back?' It feels good. I'm very humble, but I was the first black sergeant major in that program."

That fateful Wednesday evening, McCullough was on his way to Brooklyn, taking home a customer, Judith Bailey, whose disabled car he had towed to a Bronx repair shop. As they waited for a light to change at Lexington Avenue and 41st Street, a geyser of hot steam from a broken underground pipe sent his truck soaring into the air. It crashed back into a 15-foot-deep crater created by the explosion.

As the cab filled with scalding water, he and Bailey staggered out to the street. A woman fleeing the mud and debris suffered a fatal heart attack. Forty people were injured.

"I knew I was burned because my skin was a different color," McCullough recalled. "When I woke up [from the coma] I think I cried. I couldn't have gone through that alone. That was divine intervention."

Bailey, a single mother of two school-age girls, was burned over 30 percent of her body and hospitalized for three weeks. Derek Sells of the Cochran firm, co-counsel with Thompson, is her lawyer. "Judith is still struggling to overcome her injuries," he said.

For McCullough, faith, family and friends give him the will to keep going.

"We try to stay strong for him, keep him motivated.…I'm thankful that he's still here," Tanya McCullough-Stewart said.

McCullough's tow truck at scene of steam pipe explosion in July, 2007.