For Charlotte resident Willie Wahnon, Sept. 11 has personal significance.
As a retired Brooklyn police officer and 9/11 first responder, this week marked 18 years since terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers of New York City. It’s a memory he is reminded of each day. As a result of injuries sustained from inhaling dust and toxic fumes during search and rescue efforts, Wahnon had to receive a double-lung transplant and struggles to be on his feet for too long. Yet, in spite of these challenges, he shares a smile and brings joy to everyone he meets.
“You could see nothing,” Wahnon said. “Not a thing! Just a white cloud that looked like the sky was down on the street level … You couldn’t even see to the next person.”
As soon as some of the smoke cleared, and it was deemed calm enough for his police unit to return, Wahnon headed back to the buildings and began pulling brick after brick, boulder after boulder. With the help of the transit department and all their equipment, they drilled, used torches to weld some rods and cut others and did everything they could to find and free survivors. The fire department sprayed water that dripped through cracks that kept some survivors alive for a couple days until they could be rescued. The hardest part was finding those who had been badly crushed.
“That’s the part nobody wanted to see,” Wahnon said. “It took six or seven days to reach some areas, but by then it was too late for those who had been trapped inside.
For three months, he continued to work at the site along with the other first responders, breathing in the dust and fumes that would eventually destroy his lungs. Even though Wahnon had been relieved of his duties, he continued to show up.
“I went there anyway,” he said. “I had to stay there because I said, ‘I’m not leaving there without any of my friends and buddies who were caught inside.’”
Eventually the work stopped and Willie decided to retire and mentally recuperate in Florida.
“It’s something you don’t recover from,” he said. “You still have nightmares … When it gets close to that day it’s even harder. I can feel it. I can see it. I can smell it. That smell will never go away – never go.”
It was while living in Florida that Wahnon found peace through faith. After meeting missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he decided to become a member.
He told them, “I think this is where I belong.”
Willie began to experience difficulties in breathing and walking. He spent many days in and out of the hospital. However, in spite of these challenges, his faith and positive attitude sustained him.
“If it wasn’t for Jesus, I wouldn’t be functioning at all, he said. “I look for Him every day – in the morning, evening and during the day. ‘Cause without Him, I can do nothing.”
The breathing issues continued when Wahnon moved to Charlotte, where doctors eventually decided in 2016 that he needed a double-lung transplant.
His compromised immune system frequently requires him to be homebound, but that doesn’t get him down. When he is able, he volunteers with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department doing Spanish interpretation, looks out for his neighbors, and likes to bring food to the homeless people he finds in Matthews.
“It makes me feel good. That’s what He wants me to do. I cheer them up and they cheer me up,” he said.
“Willie’s joy for life and positive outlook is such an inspiration,” said Aaron Roome, bishop of the Providence congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ. “Members of our church enjoy visiting with him and basking in the hope and joy he embodies, despite his health challenges.”
When asked if he had any advice for others who are struggling, Wahnon said, “Stay positive. Never think negative. Because when you think negative, everything goes down hill … I pray every day, asking Him to give me another day. I know He’s going to take me, but I’m going to keep on fighting; keep on smiling. That’s why I’m always joyful.”