September 11, 2009

Remembering NY Fire Fighter Robert "Bobby" McMahon. September 11, 2009

I used to pray for blue-sky days.

(I grew up in central NY - a great place to be "from" but, also, unfortunately, a place of short Summers and marathon Winters where a "sunny day" is a rarity.)

I made many changes to my life in 2001 one of which was a move to the great blue-skies state of Virginia. I was there, at home on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, when the landscape of our world and our lives was changed forever.

Shortly after the attacks, the sounds of jets and helicopters filled the air and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel closed as Naval ships and carriers left the Bay for safer waters out to sea. I was living in a Navy town and it was all too clear that the tragedy of Pearl Harbor was fresh in the minds of those at the helm. Hampton Roads (Norfolk/Virginia Beach) was on lock down.

Observing the activity in the Bay, I remember writing to my sister that morning, "We're at war, we just don't know it yet".

The attacks of September 11, 2001 brought our nation together as one (for a time) yet the lives of victims' families were torn apart forever.

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel" - Maya Angelou

While victims struggled to exit the buildings that morning, heroes rushed in to help. One such hero was NY Fire Fighter McMahon:

Robert "Bobby" McMahon died in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 while risking his life to save others. He was 35 years young.

I didn't know Bobby, I wish I had. During the course of my research for this tribute, I've come to know that Bobby McMahon was the kind of person so many of us hope to know - or aspire to be.

Shortly after the attacks, I was given a ballcap which had been purchased as part of a fundraising effort. The front of the cap is embroidered, "NYFF", the back "FF McMahon".

Over the many years and a handful of moves, I've honored the cap and the memory of FF McMahon with a special place on the shelf. Today, cap in full view, I honor the man.

From those who knew him:

When he wasn't busy battling flames, Robert McMahon, whom everyone called Bobby, liked to make things. He built a haunted house for children with cancer. He painted landscapes and loved photography. He could turn mute lumber into furniture of distinction. Over at the Gate, a bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn, there is a set of benches that he created for a friend, "beautiful, church-like benches", said Julie McMahon, his wife and the mother of their two sons, Matthew and Patrick.

After the younger brother of a friend died of leukemia, Bobby volunteered as a counselor at Happiness Is Camping, a special camp for kids with cancer, in Blairstown, N.J. There, he met Julie, a pediatric cancer nurse at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who quickly won his heart. Bobby and Julie continued to volunteer at the camp and, over the years, and to this day, campers and staff remember and thank them for the help and time they shared.

Bobby had just finished renovating the family home in preparation for the birth of their second child. Julie was five and a half months pregnant with their second child, Patrick, when Bobby died.

"He put so many things in his life of 35 years that most people will never put into 70 years," said Julie.

And indeed he had.

At his firehouse, Ladder Company 20 on Lafayette Street, he was the one who set up the Christmas tree every year, stringing it with lights. He was a good cook, too, which meant clean plates and gratitude all around. He could put together a company-size pan of lasagna so impressive that somebody once slipped the recipe to GQ magazine which ran it as a "guy food" feature.

"You've got to use fresh Italian parsley, " he told GQ. "It's the fresh ingredients women love."

"I used to call him "MacGyver," said his friend Mike Hopkins, who worked with him for eight years, "because he pretty much could do anything. If he didn't know how to do something, he would do it anyway, and he would do it really well."

Bobby McMahon will be remembered by many people in many special ways.

One friend named his newborn son Robert after Bobby McMahon. And when NYC Mayor Bloomberg signed into law the naming of 97 streets in the City, Bobby received his own street in Brooklyn; Bobby McMahon Way.

I find poetry and wisdom in that street name.

There is a place of shattered brokenness in us from that blue-sky Tuesday morning eight years ago. We feel we'll never be the same. For so many, a loss of innocence.

Still numb by the loss, Ground Zero marks the very center of our being. Life goes on, yet we're changed in so many ways; broken on the inside, vulnerable from without.

Anne Finger once wrote, "Part of getting over it is knowing that you will never get over it".

Perhaps that's the emotional roadmap - the only way out and through the horror of 09/11/01; acceptance. But, in order to do so, when so many parts of our being want to hold on to the angst, scream, shout and be angry, we must not close our hearts and minds.

Just as the victims and heroes of that day believed in the possibility of escape, rescue and survival, so, too, must we hold tight to the hope of a better tomorrow.

September 11, 2001 must be a story of openness. We must let the darkest day bring new Light. To be open is to recognize the possibilities of bringing peace into our world; into the midst of noise and distraction when we are overwhelmed.

Choosing openness enables us to bring mercy and compassion into our lives and to the many lives we touch because, as with the many lives touched by Bobby McMahon, "...people will never forget how you made them feel".

That's the Bobby McMahon way.

I don't pray for blue-sky days anymore. I pray for days.

Perhaps the best way to remember and honor the 2996 victims and heroes of 9/11 is to remember and honor the people, places and passions of their lives:

Happiness Is Camping (a free Summer camp for kids with cancer) has built a new Gym and Recreation Building in honor of Bobby McMahon. "Rainy days at camp are now filled with sunshine".

If you would like to make a contribution in Bobby's honor:

My personal thanks to the following for providing informational support for this project;,,,



Paula said...

It's hard to write a memorial for a stranger that doesn't sound trite. Nicely done, Heather.

heartfelt heartlook said...

Beautiful post...

karen siroka alexander said...

i stumbled on this today as i was remembering so many things about my cousin- i wanted to share info with my sons as we head out to a memorial in ohio and knew that the web was the only way i could do that right now... there were so many wonderful things about him-he wqas simply the best-- and had simply the best smile-- every memory of him has that amazing smile pourig out of it... thank you for a beautiful piece with heart... warmed my heart this morning

Coral said...

I did not have the honor or privilege to know Bobby McMahon, but I feel I know him a little better after reading this beautiful tribute to an inspiring hero.
I participated in a 9/11 Memorial Paddle Out in Long Beach, NY today and did have the honor and privilege to wear Robert McMahon's name and Ladder 20 on a personalized wetsuit armband today. I went to this powerful event not only to remember and commemorate but to be united and together as one during this September day that has infinite meanings and memories for everyone across the world.
Upon arriving to the event,there was a table with custom armbands lovingly detailed with every NY Firefighter, Rescue and Police Officer who died compassionately helping others.
For some reason, I was drawn to Robert McMahon Ladder 20 and feel beyond what words can convey to have had the distinguished opportunity to represent and share remembrance for such a compassionate, talented loved angel. My thoughts and prayers go to his family, friends and others like me who did not know Bobby. It is our responsibility to make sure these 9/11 angels are forever remembered and live on within our hearts and altruistic actions.

Yeatsgirl~ said...

Dear Karen,

Writing the tribute to your cousin, Bobby McMahon, was both my honor and privilege. I was so happy to read that it provided a resource for you to convey his legacy to your sons as it is evident he was a very special man. You, your sons and your extended family must be very proud.

My hope is that the tribute lingers for years as a reminder to the greater world that light conquers dark, courage conquers cowardice, good conquers evil...and heroes do exist.

Thank you for your kind words.

My continued and sincere sympathies to each of you for your loss.

Yeatsgirl~ said...


Thank you for your thoughtful words. It sounds like you spent a truly heart-felt and inspiring day on the water honoring the day and the heroes we hold so close to our hearts.

We are, indeed, better for knowing Bobby McMahon - if only through the words of others who knew him well and the deeds that defined the life that he and his wife, Julie, set out to create.

Thank you for "partnering" with me as we carry forth his legacy in remembrance of his life and his ultimate sacrifice.

Dietra Nickerson said...

As I watched the images again on the 10th anniversary, it reminded me that I "inherited" some watercolor paper that I knew was from a NYC firefighter who passed on 9/11. I made some calls and turns out it was Bobby's. So I wanted to know about him and came upon this site.

I too paint landscapes.

I will honor his creativity and life as I complete the art that he was not able to. What a gift. Thank you Bobby...

Yeatsgirl~ said...

Twelve years.

343 NYFD died at the World Trade Center that day.

Never Forget.

Thank you, Bobby, and to the many first responders who gave their life that day.

My heart, my thoughts and my prayers remain with those who loved and lost them.