By Donald Wittkowski
Stacy Spiegel Cullinane never had a chance to say a final goodbye to her husband. By the time she rushed to the hospital, Ptl. Michael P. Cullinane Sr. was already dead, becoming the only police officer in Sea Isle City ever killed in the line of duty.
“I couldn’t believe he was gone,” Spiegel Cullinane recalled.
Michael Cullinane, known as “Mickey,” died on Aug. 26, 1992, after he was overcome by lethal gases while rescuing a construction worker from a nearly 30-foot-deep pit. The pit was being dug on Landis Avenue at 26th Street as part of a sewage pumping station.
On Saturday, members of Cullinane’s family gathered at the same spot for a memorial service marking the 25th anniversary of the officer’s death. They were joined by current and retired Sea Isle police officers, city leaders and members of the community.
Police Chief Thomas D’Intino, who was a young officer 25 years ago, remembered getting a “frantic call” in the morning alerting him to the unfolding tragedy. D’Intino noted that Cullinane had saved another worker who had fallen into the same construction pit the day before, then returned on Aug. 26 for another rescue attempt that claimed his life.
“On that day, he made that ultimate sacrifice,” D’Intino said, becoming emotional while delivering remarks at the memorial service.
To this day, D’Intino keeps old newspaper clippings about Cullinane’s death in his office. He said some parts of the tragedy remain vivid memories, while others have faded over 25 years.
What D’Intino has never forgotten, though, was how shocked and stunned he was over the death of a fellow officer, he said.
On that day, DiIntino emphasized, “Sea Isle City lost a highly decorated officer.”
He also pointed out that members of Cullinane’s family also suffered immensely, losing a husband, father, son and brother. His son, Michael Jr., was only 5 years old at the time.
Spiegel Cullinane, who lives in Cape May Court House and was 23 when her husband died, said her father picked her up at her job and took her to the hospital when she learned of the accident. By the time she arrived, she saw other police officers sitting on hospital stretchers, but Cullinane had been pronounced dead.
“It was surreal. I was overwhelmed,” she said.
Safety officials who investigated the accident concluded that hydrogen sulfide and methane gas, produced by decaying vegetation buried under the sand, was released during construction of the sewage pumping project.
In addition to killing Cullinane, the gas injured two other police officers and sent a total of 38 people, including five workers and some Sea Isle residents, to a nearby hospital, according to a story published Aug. 27, 1992, in The New York Times.
Several of the workers and the officers were felled by the gas as they climbed, one after another, into a 27-foot-deep pit, each in an effort to save the others, former Sea Isle Mayor Michael McHale said in the story.
Sea Isle’s current mayor, Leonard Desiderio, said during Saturday’s memorial service that Cullinane’s death was one of the worst, if not the worst day, in the city’s history. He noted that it was certainly the most tragic day in the history of Sea Isle’s police department.
“It’s something that remains with us daily,” Desiderio said.
The accident, Desiderio pointed out, underscored the dangers that police officers face every day in the line of duty.
“A police officer’s job is very, very difficult. It’s probably the most difficult there is,” he said.
During the service, Deacon Joseph Murphy, of St. Joseph Church in Sea Isle, read from scripture and compared Cullinane to the Roman centurions who were the ancient police officers.
Murphy, who is a retired Philadelphia police detective, blessed the site with holy water while lauding Cullinane as a “true hero.”
“The greatest act of love is to give up one’s life for a stranger,” Murphy said, alluding to Cullinane going to the rescue of the construction worker.
The old construction site, tucked in the marshlands along Landis Avenue at 26th Street, has been transformed into a landscaped memorial honoring Cullinane and other fallen police officers across the country. The memorial was created in 2015 by Boy Scout Ben Jargowsky for his Eagle Scout project.
Jargowsky, now a junior at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is the son of Mike Jargowsky, a retired Sea Isle police captain.
“As he gets older, he can appreciate it even more,” Mike Jargowsky said of how his son feels about the memorial.
There are other honors and remembrances of Cullinane in Sea Isle. The street sign at the intersection of 26th Street and Landis Avenue bears his name. In addition, the lobby at the Sea Isle police headquarters in City Hall is named in his memory.