As Cindy Mahoney laid dying of multiple respiratory illnesses, she begged for an autopsy. The Aiken woman who had never smoked in her life said her volunteerism at ground zero caused her disease, but she wanted to prove it.
New York lawyer David Worby visited just before her death in 2006. When he met her friends he asked one thing: Knowing what she knows now, do you think she would do it again?
“It was like a chorus,” said longtime friend Scotty Nead. “Everyone said ‘yes.’ That’s just the type of person she was.”
Mahoney had been in New York for less than a week on Sept. 11, 2001. The former Belvedere, S.C., EMT had been sent to an Episcopal convent where she was to decide what her ministry would be as a nun.
When news of the first plane crash reached Mahoney, she donned her former EMT uniform and headed toward the nearest hospital to help.
“She told me that the ambulance driver (at the hospital) said that people were dying down there and some of them were first-responders,” Nead recalled 10 years later. “She said ‘That doesn’t matter. I need to go help.’ ”
The ambulance welcomed her onboard and trucked her down to the site.
Months later, Mahoney recounted watching people burn or jump to their deaths with Nead, a then-vicar at St. Augustine Episcopal Church of Aiken.
“She would spend a few moments the best she could because there were so many people to deal with,” he said. “Most of them were talking about their families. It was really heart wrenching for her knowing that these people’s dying breath was to ask her to talk to their families.”
After the first day, she returned to “The Pit” in her nun’s habit. She returned every day for the next five months, blessing human remains and offering pastoral support.
After leaving The Pit in February, Mahoney opted to not continue becoming a nun.
“I think 9/11 took everything out of her. She was just not able to continue,” Nead said.
Mahoney never completely got back on her feet after leaving from New York.
Within a year, she started experiencing trouble breathing. Also during that time, she was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer in Charleston, S.C.
The accident left her disabled. Attempts at obtaining disability were unsuccessful. In 2004, five government officials were contacted about the potential harm she had suffered during 9/11 cleanup, but nothing was ever done.
Eventually she was homeless and sleeping in her car.
“I described her as a saint (at her funeral),” said Nead, who is now retired.
When Worby, a lawyer handling the case for hundreds of first responders like her, met her in Aiken in 2006, she was suffering from asthma, reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease and post traumatic stress disorder.
“Her health was gone and it made her somewhat depressed,” Nead recalled. “At the same time, she had the spirit to fight for all the other people who were suffering like she was. She insisted on having an autopsy when she died to show that the effects of 9/11 were still killing people.”
On Nov. 1, 2006, the 54-year-old died of lung failure.
On Jan. 2, 2011, President Obama signed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to provide $4.2 billion in compensation to rescue and recovery workers.
“She (Mahoney) personally let me know that there are some rare human beings who will give their lives when called upon at a minute’s notice without regard to their own wellbeing,” Nead said.