Meet a Real-Life Hero
Robert Verhelst marks 9-11 in an inspiring way
Journalists meet a lot of interesting people from all walks of life. It’s one of the things I love most about my job, and being introduced to Robert Verhelst was no exception. A Madison native and city firefighter, Verhelst is doing the Ironman triathlon this month and during the run portion, he’s donning full firefighter turnout gear, including a helmet and self-contained breathing apparatus—strapped to his back.
To understand his motives—and to quash any lingering questions about his sanity—you have to go back to September 11, 2001. In his early twenties, Verhelst had been a firefighter for less than a year when the terrorists attacked. The night before, he was working his twenty-four-hour shift when the crew of Madison Fire Department Ladder 6 was called to a house fire. The next morning, he hopped in the firehouse shower, flipped on the radio and heard the news that the first tower had been hit. By the time he got home, the second tower was in flames. Like all of us, he was shocked and devastated, but unlike most of us, he felt compelled to go to Ground Zero. So he contacted the American Rescue Team International and two days later he was driving a thousand miles to New York City, where he spent the next eight days performing search and rescue operations, from bucket brigades to recovery.
“It looked like a Hollywood set,” he says. “It looked surreal.” During his time there, Verhelst found a tattered baby blanket from the World Trade Center’s nursery. He kept it and later had it sewn into a new baby blanket for his now four-year-old son, Noah.
When Verhelst returned from his trip, he was a changed man. He was bitter. He had nightmares. “I’m not a religious person anymore,” he says. “It took a long time to get back to understanding the big picture.” But eventually he did, and today he channels his endless energy and emotion into honoring the memory of his fellow firefighters who lost their lives during 9-11 as well as a host of other causes that allow him to combine his generosity and goodwill, his professional pursuits, and his passion for endurance sports.
This year’s Ironman has special significance for Verhelst because it’s on September 11 and it’s the tenth anniversary. He’s among a group of folks who joined the race after spots were reserved (the race sells out quickly) for those with a special connection to 9-11. So be on the lookout for athletes wearing a special bib, including Verhelst, whose helmet will also identify him as a 9-11 athlete, along with a helmet shield displaying the word HOPE. That’s because he’s also running for a cause called Code 3 For A Cure—it’s a nonprofit that supports firefighters—and their families—battling cancer. If you’d like to donate, visit code3foracure.com. Pledge $1 for every mile ($140) and receive a commemorative shirt.
Now that you know Verhelst’s background, it won’t surprise you to hear that he’s running for not one, not two, but three causes. He’s launching a nonprofit, Destination Donation, whose ambitious goal is to see every eligible American registered as an organ donor. In addition to his firefighting career, Verhelst works as a surgery recovery coordinator for the UW Organ Procurement Organization. Basically he’s on the team of people who deliver live organs for transplant. (Thank goodness his wife Krista is a Madison police officer; it takes a special kind of partner to support this adventurous lifestyle!)
You can’t help but ask somebody with this kind of drive and determination, “Why?” The answer, he says, is simple. “9-11. That brought me to the point of saying, ‘How can I challenge myself the way those guys did.” By “those guys” he means the men and women who died trying to save those inside the World Trade Center.
It’s difficult to leave a journalist devoid of words to describe the depth of a man’s drive to find meaning in such a meaningless tragedy. Verhelst is the kind of guy that would never see himself as anything special. A hero? Pshaw. He just ties his shoelaces in the morning and heads out to do what he loves, hoping that by doing so somebody’s life will change for the better.
Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.
Find more columns here.