Steam Pipe Blast Victim

Blast Leaves Busy Student With Challenge of His Life

Until one tragic day this summer, the life of tow truck driver Gregory McCullough was very much emblematic of the typical multi-tasking CUNY student. Aspiring to a career in law enforcement, he balanced classes at The New York City College of Technology with a full-time job, a burgeoning schedule of responsibilities and passions — and did it all with impressive enthusiasm. In his "spare" time, he mentored young cadets, trained in karate and was devoted to his church and his family.

Now, Tanya McCullough-Stewart's "beautiful and loving son" is in the struggle of his life, following the horrific Manhattan steam pipe explosion on July 18 that ripped apart the pavement at Lexington Avenue and 41st Street and swallowed McCullough and his tow truck into a scalding geyser of steam that left him severely burned and near death.

McCullough, 21, and Judith Bailey, 30, were in his tow truck, stopped at a traffic light, when the Con Edison pipe exploded, rocketing the truck nearly 20 feet into the air in a blast of searing steam and debris before it plummeted into a deep crater. McCullough and Bailey, whom he had given a lift after towing her disabled car, both managed to stagger out of the truck. But McCullough suffered catastrophic third-degree burns over 80% of his body. Bleeding and in excruciating pain, he begged Junior Suarez, an employment agency worker who ran to his aid in the midst of the hellish scene: "Promise me I'm not going to die."

Since then, McCullough, of Brooklyn, has endured multiple surgeries and burn treatments at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Hospital. He has shown some slow improvement, and doctors have been able remove him from the medically induced coma they created to stabilize his condition and control his severe pain. They stress, however, that his status remains critical and that prospects for his recovery remain uncertain.

Bailey, a mother of two daughters, 9 and 6, was also taken to Weill Cornell with severe burns and released after several weeks. The Brooklyn woman was an aspiring police officer working as a therapist for the mentally disabled at the time of the explosion. Friends said she had recently passed the NYPD exam.

"I thank God that I'm alive today," Bailey said as she was released from Weill Cornell in August.

McCullough's family, friends, pastor and teachers describe a remarkably dynamic, considerate and responsible young man who managed a schedule of 12-hour, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shifts towing cars for One Stop Shell in Bensonhurst; college and martial arts classes, time with family and friends as well as religious interests, including trying to start a Christian magazine.

McCullough had started with the NYPD Explorers youth auxiliary group at 9, and later joined the First Marine Cadet Corps, his family said, earning the rank of sergeant major. He wanted to become a marine and later join the FBI or state police. "He was not just a tow truck driver. He was an incredible person," Tanya McCullough-Stewart said of her only child at a news conference in August.

At City Tech, McCullough's determination stood out. He enrolled in City Tech in fall 2005 and took classes in the legal studies department for four semesters, switching to a liberal arts program in spring 2007. "Our students tend to have work demands, school demands, family demands and yet they want to succeed. They find ways to wear all of the many hats," said paralegal studies Professor Lise Hunter, who taught McCullough in an introductory class at City Tech two years ago.

McCullough, she said, "was one of those students — full-time jobs, juggling everything. I remember him because he distinguished himself. She said she "gasped... just horrified" when news of the tragedy first flashed on the evening news in July. "Often students like to hide in the back of the classroom," Hunter recalled. But McCullough was different. "He made a point of always asking questions and participating and engaging in class discussion, so I got to know who he was early on."

"He had a lot on his plate," said Will Molloy, a karate instructor at Tiger Schulmann's dojo in Benson-hurst. "But I don't think I ever had anyone who was more enthusiastic. I wanted to talk to him about becoming an instructor."

Said Pastor A.R. Bernard of Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, the family's church, "He is a dynamic young man who is at the beginning of his life, and it could have been any one of us."

"I do want the family to be comforted in knowing that his teachers remembered him and cared about him," said Prof. Hunter. "We keep him in our prayers."

McCullough's family has called for an independent investigation and announced a lawsuit against Con Edison, which issued a statement of sympathy for the victims and their families but has not commented directly on the litigation. His mother and stepfather have been at his bedside daily, singing to him and praying for his recovery as he undergoes ongoing treatment to remove dead skin and stave off infection. McCullough's medical bills are expected to exceed $1 million.