His name was William J. Mahoney II, but he went by Billy. He had a handsome face that could be equally goofy and he was strong and athletic. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was 37 years old, was married to the love of his life, Donna, and had 4 beautiful kids. Billy loved sports, particularly baseball and swimming, and was a handyman who enjoyed working on projects and building things with his hands. He was also a firefighter with Rescue 4 in Queens, New York.
I never knew Billy or his family. I probably heard his name over the past 15 years, but it wasn’t until yesterday – 9/11/16, fifteen years after he died – that our paths crossed. I signed up to hike the memorial stair climb to commemorate the loss on 9/11/01 by climbing 110 stories of stairs (the height of the World Trade Center buildings) with Dave and the men and women of Inter-Canyon Fire/Rescue, who have done this event every year. Although I had gone and supported in the past, this was my first time to sign up and actually walk each of those steps. When I picked up my entry packet with my commemorative t-shirt, I found Billy. Each person who climbs is assigned a person who was lost on 9/11/01 to climb in memory of – so there he was. “William J. Mahoney II, Firefighter, Rescue 4 Never Forget.”
Photo By Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post
Nearly 3,000 people climbed the 110 stories of stairs at Red Rocks on 9/11/16. Ironically, almost the same number of people who died on 9/11/01. Each person climbing had the photo of someone they were climbing to honor. So many people, so much loss. As my friend Kristine said, sometimes it felt like they were right there beside us. It was powerful and moving to tears. As soon as I got home, I did some research and learned more about Billy, but almost nothing about his widow and kids left behind.
I have been thinking about Donna Mahoney. My imagination has taken great liberty thinking about her. I imagine her with hazel eyes, much like the eyes of my childhood best friend, flecked with gold and green. If you look at her eyes, you can see flashes of joy, anger, pride, and deep, unspeakable pain – the kind of pain that comes from having your beating heart ripped out of your chest and being expected to carry on with life. I bet she is a firecracker, not taking any crap, but quick to forgive and eager to laugh. And I bet no one made her laugh like Billy did.
In my mind (and this is total conjecture on my part), I can imagine Billy and Donna as likely high school sweethearts. She loved him fiercely, and even though he exasperated her, behind every eye roll and sigh, there was love in her heart. He was her one and only, even if she had to share him with the fire department. And he adored her, even though she sometimes felt like she wasn’t enough, needed to lose those last baby pounds, didn’t have time to get a decent haircut, or yelled at him for leaving half-finished projects all over the house. Donna and the kids were his everything, but he sometimes found it hard to tell them that.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I wonder if Donna had an urge to call Billy and beg him to take a sick day and come home from the station. Even if she did, she likely didn’t actually call him – she knew that while he was at the job, he was fully at the job. I can almost see her getting the kids ready for school that morning, maybe listening to the news in the background while making lunches and brushing hair…. Did she see the first plane hit the tower? She would have gotten a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, knowing Billy was on call. When the second plane hit, she would have maybe flipped on the scanner or called the firehouse. She would have known that the crew from Rescue 4 was responding. She would have known that Billy was rushing into that fiery mess, because that is what he did. She would have been watching, like I was and the rest of the US was watching by this point, she would have gathered her kids around her, and they would be standing there together watching the news….
And when the buildings collapsed and the world became dust, did she know? Did she run out into the street looking for Billy? Did she have family or neighbors that showed up and held her in their arms while she shook with fear and anxiety of not knowing? Did she hear his voice in her mind saying goodbye? How did she manage all the mixed feelings of anguish, anger, hope, despair, and desperation?
And the days and weeks following, with so many unanswered questions and so much effort going into recovery – how long did she have hope? How on Earth do you pick up and move forward without knowing? At what point, exactly, does your heart stop beating?
My heart breaks for Donna. It aches for Donna. I wish I had a way to reach out and tell her, after all this time, that I cry for her. That I can only imagine (and at the same time I don’t want to imagine) what she has gone through the past 15 years. That I hope the universe has returned some joy to her heart, and that she has peace in her heart. I hope her kids have grown, and that someone was there to walk her daughters down the aisle at their weddings, and to see her sons grow up and find their own paths in life. I hope she knows that there are people she has never met who are touched by Billy’s actions, and will remember his name, and hers. Donna Mahoney – I wish you love and peace.