DECATUR — Some of the worst situations can bring people together.
Seventeen years later, they are getting married.
With family and friends gathered, O’Neal, 47, proposed to his future bride Tuesday evening at the 9/11 Decatur Memorial in Nelson Park. In traditional style, he knelt on one knee before opening the box to show his surprised girlfriend with a beautiful engagement ring.
The moment was a happy occasion, compared to their starting point.
“He is worth it,” Epperson said.
Seventeen years ago, O’Neal was a firefighter out of Station 43 when the Twin Towers fell, he said. He immediately began working and didn’t stop for months.
“I responded right from there,” he said.
Three days later, Epperson said, she arrived from Mattoon with the Mid-America K-9 Search and Rescue. Her services as a rescue worker have been utilized during other tragedies including, more recently, the 2011 tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri. “I take the dogs and recover bodies,” she said.
Epperson remained in New York for more than a month, while O’Neal worked on site for eight months.
After the dust had settled, O’Neal stayed in New York, while Epperson, 54, went back home to Mattoon. The couple kept in contact through the years. “We were still friends and talked back and forth,” O’Neal said.
They recently found themselves at a crossroads in their lives and decided to meet up again. “It was time for me to make a change,” O’Neal said.
So he moved to her hometown and they bought a house together. The couple have gone through health struggles, including various cancers and heart conditions, but they are happy to have one another to lean on.
“At least we have each other,” O’Neal said. “If I have a problem, I don’t have to go talk to somebody I don’t know.”
O’Neal is now a retired firefighter and works with Epperson and the K-9 unit during search and rescue missions. The two are preparing to travel to the east coast if Hurricane Florence touches ground. “As long as everybody heeds the warning and gets out, we won’t have to go,” Epperson said.
They met at the 9/11 memorial on Lake Decatur. The Nelson Park sculpture, which incorporates a steel beam of the World Trade Center, was unveiled a year ago.
During the proposal, the couple brought memorabilia from the Ground Zero site including pieces of glass, hunks of metal and many photos. Epperson also wore a medallion cut out from the metal skin of the towers.
Donald Hayes and his wife Rachael are friends with the couple. “They are great people and the deserve happiness,” Donald Hayes said. “They have been through quite a bit.”
The group of friends refer to each other as family and plan to be with O’Neal and Epperson during their wedding date, Sept. 11, 2019.
And she did say "yes."