At 17, Simone Contessi of Lecco, Italy was already an experienced mountain climber. He had climbed often in the nearby Dolomites whose soaring heights make them among the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world.
On Aug. 8, 1994, he had planned to climb the famous La Via Maria route as a member of a team. Because one of his friends was late, however, he was asked to act as leader to three younger boys.
He leapt at the chance. His mother, Mariangela Fumagalli, says he always threw himself head first into adventure and had led several other climbing parties. Although graded easier than many of the other climbs in the area, it was nevertheless a challenge on near-vertical slopes with a free fall of several hundred feet to the ground below.
All went by the book, however, on a day of bright sunshine and blue sky, until out of nowhere the climbers were hit by a violent thunderstorm. Within seconds they were drenched and cold and some of them were frightened. Simone decided to go for assistance and told the other boys to rope themselves to the rocks. They watched him climb steadily on until suddenly the sky lit up with tremendous flash and Simone was knocked off his feet by a bolt of lightning. He fell 800 feet and was killed instantly.
His family was devastated. Giuliano, Simone's father, is not an expert climber, but he desperately wanted to relive his son's last climb. He trained for a year, followed the same route and left a bunch of carved wooden flowers where Simone fell.
Within a few weeks of the accident, our own 7-year old son, Nicholas, was shot in an attempted carjacking during a family vacation in Italy, and we donated his organs to seven very sick Italians, four of them teenagers, like Simone.
Mariangela, though still numbed by her own loss, was moved to write to us, one of those letters that stuck out, among the hundreds we received, for its description of a home that had suddenly lost all joy. "I do so wish Simone had been able to donate his organs so someone else could have lived," she added.
We answered her letter as we did every letter we received because if people bare their souls to complete strangers — some started by saying "I have never told anyone this before" — you cannot send them a conventional "thank you very much" note.
So what began 18 years ago has blossomed into firm friendships with people from around the world, including Mariangela. She felt the stories of her son and Nicholas were so closely intertwined that when the Children's Bell Tower was built in Bodega Bay where we lived, by San Francisco sculptor Bruce Hasson, she, her daughter and three friends traveled from Italy to see it. With them, they had a bell.
And so this brave and honorable boy has a place on a monument designed to memorialize the best in our children. He is in good company, and so are they.
When The Press Democrat ran a story about the bell tower recently, I sent a copy to her. The sense of an irreparable loss is always with her, as it is with us, but she told me, "every time I think of the bells I get a profound feeling of peace."