All of it — life, love, birth, death — happened so quickly.
Sarah Hawkins, a girl from small-town Georgia trying to find herself in New York, and Collin Schaaff, a young Marine stationed thousands of miles from his native Washington, met in a bar. Each was serving as a designated driver that night. Shared sobriety helped bring them together.
They grew inseparable.
It was only a few months before they married and just a few more before Sarah bore their first daughter. She was six months along with their second when everything stopped just as abruptly as it had started.
On July 10, 2017, a KC-130 air tanker carrying an elite special operations unit across the country crashed and burned in a soybean field in rural Mississippi.
Marine Cpl. Collin Schaaff was among those on board, one of 16 killed. He was just 22 years old.
His wife was left pregnant and a single parent, scared and alone. She had little choice but to leave what they’d built in New York and moved back in with her family in Barnesville, the rural Georgia town about an hour southeast of Atlanta.
They made it work, but she and the kids had no place of their own, nowhere to really call home. That changed Tuesday.
In an emotional ceremony held on the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks, Sarah Schaaff and her girls were given a brand new home — thanks to a foundation created in memory of a firefighter who lost his life that day nearly two decades ago.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation has donated millions and built scores of homes for the families of wounded or fallen first responders or service members.
“If I could’ve ask him before he got on that plane, what do you want, what do you need done, he would’ve said, ‘Take care of my family,’” friend and fellow Marine Cpl. Adam Luxon said.
The Schaaff family will remain in Barnesville.
“This has been a very difficult time for me,” the young widow said. “But we’re working through it. And now I get to have a home, and I get to have him … still be a part of our children’s lives, no matter what.”
Sarah’s new home, a gleaming white and green farmhouse, is tucked neatly on her parents’ property. It has a pool and a porch and a yard for the girls, and a spacious window where Sarah can watch them from the kitchen.
Sarah and her family saw the finished product for the first time Tuesday at 9:59 a.m., the exact time the South Town of the World Trade Center fell.
The namesake of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation died in the South Tower after having run for miles in full gear to get there among the chaos.
“We have decided to turn evil into something good,” said John Hodge, a cousin of Siller’s and the foundation’s COO.
Public safety personnel lined the driveway as Sarah and the girls — one now close to 3 years old, the other just over 1 — arrived. Sky divers dropped from the sky with American flags in tow as the national anthem played. Local dignitaries spoke. So did friends and family.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Sarah’s mom, Ariyl Fuentes, said.
Sarah spoke too, and was given a piece of steel from the South Tower. She raised a flag that had originally honored Collin at the site of his crash.
Then she got to go inside.
As members of the media swarmed around her, Sarah toured what she’s already dubbed her “forever home.”
The living room and its custom clock, where pictures of her and Collin and the girls mark each hour. The kitchen with the butchers block she asked about. The master bathroom, which elicited an excited yelp. And her favorite part: the laundry room.
“It is absolutely amazing,” she said. “Everything they’ve done. It’s great not to have to pay a mortgage on anything, to not have to renovate anything, to just have a place where the girls can grow up, where they can get older and they can know OK, I have a home … I never want my children to feel like they have to give me their piggy bank because we’re having a hard time.”
Asked if she’d taken a moment that morning to think of Collin, to talk to him, she said that they speak every day. They talk when she’s frustrated by her daughter Willow coloring on the walls, or by Guinevere crying, and they talk when she’s happy. They talk when she hears certain songs on the radio.
They talk when she’s mad at him for leaving.
“But then there’s days that I’m just like, ‘I’m so thankful that you blessed me with everything that you have,’” Sarah said, sitting on the couch in her new living room.
“He will forever be in my home,” she said. “He will forever be everywhere in my home, continuously and always.”