In roundabout way, bracelet for 9/11 hero makes it home

by: Jeb Philipps, The Columbus Dispatch, 4/25/2002

This could all be a big coincidence: A Worthington woman receives a bracelet stamped with a name she has never heard from a man she doesn't know, then passes it on to a man she has just met -- someone who happens to know the name and the people for whom the bracelet was meant.

But like the thousands of other connections made in the painful days since Sept. 11, the people who know the story of the bracelet say there's nothing haphazard about it.

"We're talking really metaphysical weird,'' said Gustavo Hoefs, 44, the Worthington artist who made the bracelet. "There is a God.''

The bracelet was stamped: "Deputy Chief Ray Downey; FDNY; Deer Park, N.Y.''

Hoefs made it and hundreds of other stainless-steel bands to memorialize those who died in the terrorist attack. He passed them out whenever he felt the notion -- Grant Medical Center got a stack and so did St. John's Episcopal Church in Worthington.

From the beginning, Hoefs wanted the bracelets to reach the families of the victims, but he didn't know how to go about it. So when he passed out his bracelets, he told the receivers to pass them to people to whom they felt connected. Eventually, with enough connecting, those bracelets could end up in the right hands, he figured.

"I wanted them all to get home,'' Hoefs said.

Julie Shaffer, a legal secretary from Worthington, got one from the St. John's batch shortly after the attack. She's not a member, and not particularly religious, but she saw on a television news program that the church was making a relief trip to New York on Sept. 30.

"I just wanted to help any way I could,'' she said.

Shaffer, 34, and nine others took the trip. They all wore bracelets branded with different names. All were supposed to give them to someone in New York, on the instructions of an artist Shaffer had never met.

They were in New York for a week. The trip's focus was "music relief,'' distributing instruments, music stands and sheet music and playing for New York schools, said Deborah Price, a local musician who helped organize the effort.

Shaffer didn't play, so she helped distribute the materials. Others on the trip became intent on sending the bracelets on their way.

"Here I had raised all this money and brought these instruments, and the bracelets took up all my time,'' Price said.

While the others on the trip connected, Shaffer struggled to find the right person to give her bracelet.

Two days before she was to leave, she met a firefighter at Engine House No. 1. She asked to hug him. When she did, she sobbed. She cries now talking about that moment.

"I don't even know what his name was,'' she said.

Having found her connection, Shaffer returned to the station the next night to give the firefighter her bracelet. A different firefighter approached her: "Can I help you?''

She explained the bracelet stamped "Deputy Chief Ray Downey.'' This man had known Downey, and his wife, who was at the station, is friends with Downey's daughter and teaches one of Downey's grandchildren. She said she'd make sure that the Downey family got the bracelet.

So Shaffer -- who was not a member of St. John's, who had not known about the bracelets a week before, who just happened to walk into Engine House No. 1, who happened to connect with a random firefighter who happened to work with another firefighter whose wife taught members of the Downey family -- had put the bracelet where it belonged.

But that's not all.

Watching a TV special sometime later, she heard former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani refer to a bracelet he was wearing that said "Deputy Chief Ray Downey.''

She saw former President Clinton was wearing one, too.

Then Shaffer, who had left her address with the firefighter to whom she gave the bracelet, received a letter from Rosalie Downey, Ray Downey's widow.

"Thanks for the bracelet. I had about 1,000 bracelets made after I received yours. My husband, Deputy Chief Ray Downey, has not been found, but the name will always be remembered. God Bless You, Rosalie.''

The family had been passing the bracelets around in high places, said Marie Downey, Ray Downey's daughter.

Actor Robert DeNiro, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and New York Rangers captain Mark Messier also have bracelets etched with Ray Downey's name, she said.

Marie Downey said she was "blown away'' that Shaffer had wandered into Engine House No. 1 and found someone who could deliver the bracelet.

"There are 10,000 firemen in New York City, and she finds one whose wife is a friend of mine,'' Downey said.

On April 13, Shaffer met the Downey family at a memorial dinner in Indianapolis. She learned of the event on the Internet and went to pay tribute to a man who made so many connections possible.

"We were overwhelmed,'' Marie Downey said of her family's meeting with Shaffer. "She didn't even know us. She touched our hearts, and she started a trend.''

Ray Downey, 63, was the city's most-decorated firefighter. His body has not been recovered, Marie Downey said. A court declared him dead on Monday.

In Shaffer's Sept. 11 scrapbook, she now has a photo of herself surrounded by the Downey family.

She is convinced that the photo was bound to happen.

"I'm not religious,'' Shaffer said. "I do think things happen for a reason. There is something out there.''

Dispatch Staff Reporter John Futty contributed to this story.