By Menachem Wecker, MA ’09
A man with a backpack and wearing a black mask had just entered the PNC Bank in Neshannock Township, Pa., where Thomas Michael (“Mike”) Corcoran, a 42-year-old corrections officer, was waiting in line.
Noticing the masked man, Corcoran stepped back about five feet from the bank teller and reached for his pistol. He tended to conceal carry his Smith & Wesson .380 sans chambered round, so he loaded the bullets and snapped off the safety. Simultaneously, he scanned the room. The masked man, he determined, had no accomplice.
Ignoring Corcoran, BFA ’06, the bank robber went up to the teller—the one who’d been about to withdraw a large sum Corcoran needed to pay a contractor—and yelled, “Put all the money in the bag!” Corcoran was on his day off on Oct. 24, 2018, but his mind was working overtime. He saw the outline of the robber’s cell phone through his sweatpants. No weapon. Corcoran raised his own gun, which was now ready to discharge if absolutely necessary.
“Hey!” he yelled. “Put your hands in the air. Drop the bag and get on the ground. Keep your hands where I can see them!” Clearly frightened, the masked man complied. “I didn’t expect him, but he didn’t expect me,” Corcoran says. There might be a one in a million chance that someone robs a bank, but there must be a one in 10 million chance that “there’s someone with a gun in the bank you’re trying to rob.”
Of all the bank joints in all the towns in all of the world, the would-be robber walked unluckily into the one where he found himself on the business end of a former Marine’s pistol. But the whole incredible scenario, which led Corcoran’s 5-year-old daughter to think of him as a superhero, was more predictable than those far-out odds.
“It was so surreal, but, afterwards, it felt like of course at some point in my life I was going to stop a bank robbery,” Corcoran says. “There are just so many weird events that have happened in my life.
Mike Corcoran (black skullcap) poses with Gen. James Mattis, the future secretary of defense, and fellow Marines in Afghanistan in 2001. The photo is signed by Mattis. (Rob Curtis)
As a 4-year-old, Corcoran says, he moved with his mom—his parents had just divorced—from western Pennsylvania, just across the border from Ohio, to Southern California. Later, the courts worked out a custody agreement, and Corcoran spent summers with his dad back in western Pennsylvania. His West Coast classmates asked about Amish people, about milking cows and about his flying Ultralight planes on the farm, while his East Coast friends had questions about California when they saw his Vans high tops.
Corcoran’s mother worked as an environmental specialist at the since-shuttered El Toro and Tustin air stations. As a 6-year-old, he drew pictures of and was fascinated by the posters and scale models that he saw around the bases of the future the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, a vertical takeoff-and-landing aircraft. In pencil and pen and with his omnipresent camera, he was mesmerized by the power of those fighter jets and helicopters, so he captured the flames coming out of the afterburners. Once a teacher told his mom that his drawings of dragons were scaring his classmates; Corcoran took that as indication his art was good enough to elicit emotion.
He also wanted to document war. “I wanted to go where there was a story,” he says. “I wanted to be a war correspondent before I knew what that was.” And here is one of the many coincidences in his life. After he enlisted, his first post was at New River Air Station in Jacksonville, N.C. In the months after he arrived there, it became home to the first V-22 Osprey squadron ever.
It took a while to get there.
Corcoran never graduated from high school. He was suspended for truancy as a junior and then expelled as a senior, he says, for being excessively mischievous. Despite getting good grades, he got caught doing normal rebellious teenage-type things like drinking at football games. He also got in the occasional fight. He was short one credit to graduate properly, but he later earned a GED and went onto to the now-defunct Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where he stayed for two years, studying visual communications. He completed an associate’s degree and then in September 1998 joined the Marines as a combat correspondent in the public affairs office.
Before Corcoran (no relation) applied in 2002 to the Corcoran College of Art and Design, where he studied photojournalism, his photos from his time as a Marine had appeared in many newspapers. That includes one of battlefield prisoners at Kandahar International Airport in Afghanistan on the front page of The New York Times on Dec. 20, 2001, which he thinks is the first widely published night-vision image taken from a combat zone.
“I always happened to be in the center of whatever was going on,” he says. “Just coincidentally, it seemed.”
Among the journalists covering Afghanistan while Corcoran’s unit was in country was Pulitzer Prize-winning Times photographer Stephen Crowley, who became one of his senior-year professors at the Corcoran. “We were in Afghanistan at the same time,” he says. Chalk that up as another coincidence.
Corcoran was on leave, preparing to deploy overseas on a mission to potentially disarm ethnic Albanians and to stop human trafficking, when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. He shipped out immediately to Norfolk, Va., and then to North Carolina on the U.S.S. Bataan, an amphibious aircraft carrier with a relatively large hospital. When it was determined the ship wasn’t required in New York for humanitarian aid, it and two others sailed east.
When Corcoran entered Afghanistan with the first U.S. and Allied forces, there were less than 2,000 troops in country. His Marine unit, along with the Delta Force and other special forces, made up a task force led by Gen. James Mattis, the future secretary of defense. Corcoran says he still looks up to Mattis, nicknamed the “Warrior Monk” by his men for what Corcoran described as his “Bushido code” like lifestyle. Corcoran considers him among the most influential people he has ever been in the presence of and worked for. To Corcoran, Mattis is everything that a Marine should be.
“He’s fair and focused and never forgets the most important principles of Marine Corps’ leadership: mission accomplishment and troop welfare,” Corcoran says.
The group landed under the cover of night at a Pakistan airport. “People always talk about covert CIA operations. This was an overt operation,” he says. The group tried to clear FIM-92 “Stinger” missiles off the streets, which is where another coincidence emerges. When Corcoran moved to D.C. after Afghanistan in 2002, he was hired to photograph a party for, and was introduced to, Charlie Wilson, the late Texas congressman who provided the funding for the Afghans to buy those Stingers to begin with.
In 2001, on what would be the first U.S. transport plane, a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, to land at Kandahar, Afghanistan after Sept. 11, Corcoran and the dozen or so guys with whom he was traveling were shot upon. “It wasn’t small gunfire. We were being fired at with rockets, surface-to-air missiles,” he says. Initially, Corcoran figured it was people shooting off guns because it was Ramadan; many of the Marines slept through the whole thing. “It is like watching a movie. Maybe like out-of-body,” he says. “Like you’re flying over fireworks.”
Keeping calm under pressure in an out-of-body experience will serve Corcoran well in that bank, but let’s get him there again.
In 2002, he gets into the Corcoran school and Rochester Institute of Technology, but he can’t see himself going to the latter to study photojournalism. “I want to go to D.C. or New York or Miami, but not Rochester, N.Y.,” he says. “What am I going to take pictures of—scull boats on the river? I imagined my action photos would be retired people holding hands on a bench. I would rather take pictures of politicians or the D.C. bomb squad.”
After graduating from the Corcoran in 2006, Corcoran turned itinerant for a while. He stayed a few years in D.C., working as a photographer and writing for trade magazines before bouncing between odd and disparate jobs in Augusta, Maine, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and D.C. again. Eventually he got a job in Seoul, South Korea, where he lived for five years in total. Among those odd jobs: local newspaper photographer, dock hand, charter school aide, welder/fabricator, liquor store clerk, maintenance man, gift shop clerk and a horticulture landscaper for well-to-do families.
In 2013, he moved back to western Pennsylvania, where, thanks in part to his military background, he got a job as a corrections officer with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. He’s had that job for four years and has worked at three prisons, the last year and a half at State Correctional Institute-Mercer in Mercer, Pa.
He says he’s pretty progressive for someone in such a role, and that his liberal friends think he’s right-wing, while right-of-center people think he’s liberal. He’s also proud of how he conducts himself in his role, though, and he sees his responsibility as keeping people out of trouble until they are released. He will be at the grocery store, for example, when someone will call out “Mr. Corcoran!” “Hey. Oh. Where do I know you from?” he will respond. Then the person will reveal that he or she did time in a prison where he worked.
“I treat people like people. I’m not there to make their time harder than it already is,” he says.
Which brings us back to that October 2018 day at the bank, where the armed off-duty state corrections officer was used to exercising the muscle of de-escalating situations, especially dangerous ones.
“I’m so glad that I recognized that this guy didn’t have a weapon. I didn’t want to be some other white law enforcement guy who shoots another unarmed black guy,” he says. “I don’t want to shoot him. He’s desperate. He’s robbing a bank.”
Ultimately, Corcoran says, the robber realized that he wouldn’t shoot him, so the robber made his way to the door—all with his hands up. Corcoran put himself in the way, but, unwilling to fire his gun at the unarmed man, ultimately let the guy go. He did, however, give chase and saw the man head for a nearby community center, where he figured the robber had parked.
Corcoran called the police and shared what he’d found, including his hunch about the guy’s parking spot. “You’re not going to park in someone’s driveway if you’re robbing a bank,” he deduced. He was right. The police figured out the license plate from surveillance cameras at the community center and learned the guy had robbed two banks the prior day and the morning before coming to this PNC. Federal marshals caught the fugitive in Ohio four months later.
In those 10 seconds, which felt much longer, in which Corcoran realized the guy was trying to rob the bank, he fell back on his Marine training, similar to that described in the 2014 book Left of Bang, which details the Marine Combat Hunter Program initiated by Mattis. It teaches Marines, among other things, to be mindful of their surroundings. An example: Corcoran stepped back from the teller to scan the room to see if the would-be robber was working alone.
“All that training sticks with you for the rest of your life,” he says. “It’s brainwashed into you; it can save your life sometimes or you’ll end up in prison sometimes.
The day after Christmas in 2006, Corcoran was walking around Washington’s U Street neighborhood at 3:30 a.m., when someone put a gun to his head and tried to rob him of his Nikon D2X camera. (Yes, he remembers the model.) As Corcoran tells it, he wrestled the guy to the ground, the gun went flying, and Corcoran ran off. Corcoran found a police officer, who caught the guy, and in court, the judge asked Corcoran if he was sure this was the only guy on the street.
“I was like, ‘Your honor. It was the night after Christmas, and no one was out. Not even a mouse,’” he says. “That was my moment in court.”
So what’s his best advice for a civilian without his training, should that person be in a bank during a robbery, or be mugged at gunpoint? “I don’t think you should attempt to do that. I’ve had a lot of training,” he says. “It’s just weird. I’ve survived a lot of things. I hope, knock on wood, I keep surviving.”
Top photo: Mike Corcoran accepts the medal of valor from John Wetzel, the Pennsylvania secretary of corrections. (Liam Flanagan)