YORKTOWN, N.Y. – With first responders and other New Yorkers still succumbing to 9/11-related illnesses, the death toll from that day continues to rise well above the some 2,750 people who were directly killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Sixteen years after assisting with rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero, Michael Houlahan, a Yorktown resident and retired NYPD detective, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Less than three years later, the 59-year-old had died.
“He was taken from us way too soon,” said his 22-year-old daughter, Jenna Houlahan. “But I know him, and if he had to go back, I know he would have made the same decision to help that day.”
Houlahan, who died in March, was honored by hundreds from the Yorktown community on Friday, Sept. 11, with a nighttime illumination ceremony at Granite Knolls Park.
“When I heard the beams of light at the World Trade Center may not be turned on, I knew our community would respond,” said Town Supervisor Matt Slater, regarding New York City’s canceled-then-reinstated light ceremony. “We quickly assembled a team of volunteers who made tonight happen.”
Yorktown resident Andrew Gmoser and his company, Special G Productions, donated the lighting equipment for the ceremony, which came together through a collaborative effort between the town’s police department, two fire departments, the parks and recreation department, and the Parks and Recreation Commission.
Tom Houlahan had reached out to the town supervisor, asking for an acknowledgement of his late brother at the town’s annual remembrance ceremony, held at the 9/11 memorial in Shrub Oak.
“I knew Mike deserved more than a simple mention,” Slater said. “The loss of Det. Houlahan should be a reminder that the impact of the attacks on 9/11 continue to reverberate today.”
Houlahan was an active member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and the Shrub Oak Athletic Club, where he coached and had a decade-long run as softball director. On top of donating his own funds to replace dilapidated benches at town fields, Houlahan made a $7,000 donation to the Lakeland Central School District, where he worked as a security aide, to purchase new basketball backboards and baskets in the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School gymnasium, where youth teams often played.
Yorktown Police Chief Robert Noble met Houlahan through youth sports.
“He ran softball and I ran basketball,” the chief said. It didn’t take long for their friendship to develop, starting with a request for lunch on Houlahan’s part. Noble agreed, and the two dined at Turco’s (now Uncle Giuseppe’s) on Downing Drive.
“We did it [every week] for a year and a half, until the end,” Noble said. “There’s a book out there, ‘Tuesdays with Morrie,’ or whatever it’s called. I miss my Mondays with Mike.”
Noble shared stories about Houlahan’s altruistic nature (“Mike gave. That’s all he did.”) and his love of dogs, and said he “bled blue” (for both North Carolina basketball and the police).
“He’d go for his treatments, and he was in pain,” Noble said. “You could see he was in pain, and he would talk about the young children he would see down in the waiting room, and how it broke his heart.
“He never complained,” Noble added. “This man never complained. You hear a lot of complaining these days, you see a lot of phonies on TV. This guy, he was the real deal. What he had inside him, very few of us have.”
The police chief said Houlahan should be properly remembered.
“Something should be named after this man,” Noble said, suggesting a ball field in town.
Houlahan only recently told his children about his experience on Sept. 11, 2001, and his work at Ground Zero in the ensuing days.
“My dad never brought his job home with him,” said Jenna, who retold her father’s story.
“My dad was working with his partner, transporting prisoners, when he saw the north tower burning,” Jenna Houlahan said. “Fueled by love, and a dedication to his job and country, my father, his partner, and the prisoners they were transporting got out of the car and helped direct fire trucks through traffic and stunned and scared civilians.” He then worked for a week straight at Ground Zero, “cleaning debris, looking for body parts, breathing in contaminated air.”
Tom Houlahan said his brother wouldn’t think he was worthy of such a ceremony.
“There’s only one thing he wanted me to tell you all,” Tom Houlahan said. “He did his job, and he would do it again.”