Inside all of us lies a hero — we just have to rise to the occasion.
Inside Keenia Williams, though, lies a super hero.
She’s been shot. She’s been shot at. She’s broken up fights and wrestled purse snatchers to the ground. And she’s dragged a trucker to safety from a wrecked, flaming big rig on the freeway.
Keenia has been a hero most of her life, and doesn’t plan on stopping soon.
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The 22-year-old Hunter’s Point native made headlines last year when she rescued truck driver Michael Finerty from his burning big rig on Highway 101 in San Francisco.
In just a few days, Keenia should hear from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation if she is among those awarded their national Citizen Service Before Self Honors. Three ordinary Americans travel to Washington to receive this honor for single and sustained acts of heroism each year.
Even though Keenia is nominated for her single freeway rescue, Keenia’ acts of valor didn’t begin on Highway 101. This mother and survivor of violence has been standing up for people as long as she can remember.
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Growing up in Bayview-Hunters Point, Keenia lost her father to gun violence when she was five. For years, she’s been disappointed that the police could never find the killer, and vows she’ll be the one to solve his murder:
“I want to be the one to tell people that I found the murderer.”
In high school at Thurgood Marshall, Keenia remembers breaking up fights and trying to prevent violence:
“I would get in between a group of girls and say that you’re not going to fight her. I don’t like seeing people get bullied.”
Keenia also recalls being on a bus in the Bayview when kids came on and started shooting at people:
“If I could’ve said something to those kids I would’ve said: How can you take someone’s life? You act like animals. God did not put us on this earth to harm each other.”
Keenia has herself been a victim of violence. In 2005, walking to the bus stop from her boyfriend’s house, she saw a group of guys in a car trying to get her attention. Before she knew it, shots were fired.
She ran back to her boyfriend’s house and at first didn’t realize she was shot:
“I didn’t feel anything until he said something. But then I started feeling the burning sensation.”
Keenia transferred to Downtown High when she got pregnant, then began staying in Antioch after her daughter Ja’niyh was born:
“There are good things about the Bayview like the sense of community the police need to be more focused. There have been so many deaths there but the police still don’t find the murderers.”
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Last October, just before dawn, Keenia was driving into The City with her five-year-old daughter Ja’niyh in back. On Highway 101, still dark outside, Keenia saw a big rig flip over and burst into flames in her rearview mirror.
After seeing trucker Michael Finerty make his way out of the flipped-over rig and collapse, Keenia immediately pulled over and told her daughter to stay in the car.
Between her and the rig were streams of diesel fuel that had spilled from the truck and now were in flames. Keenia ran through them, picked up Finerty and pulled him to safety, then started splashing water on his face to make sure he was still alive.
“I wasn’t thinking about how heavy he was. I just wanted to get him away from all of the diesel and fire.”
She recalls getting back to her car and Ja’niyh saying:
“That is so awesome that you did that! Is he alright?”
Finerty was taken to San Francisco General Hospital and treated for minor injuries. Keenia says he now calls her his “angel.”
Keenia received recognition for her deeds from the Mayor’s Office, Women’s Commission and the California Highway Patrol. Mayor Ed Lee, along with San Francisco Fire and Police Commissioners, presented Keenia with Lee’s first-ever Good Samaritan Award.
Even after her dramatic freeway rescue, Keenia continued her heroic deeds back in her neighborhood. On New Year’s Day in Bayview Plaza, Keenia saw a man trying to steal a woman’s purse. Keenia ran up to the man and got him off of her. He tried to push her off, but Keenia held him down until the police came.
Keenia has many tattoos that signify her love for her family and the trails and tribulations that she went through growing up. She has a tattoo for her mother, father and daughter. She also has a tattoo that reads “love is pain” and “beware of backstabbers.”
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Keenia is now working at the Heroic Imagination Project in the Presidio, where she is being trained in conflict resolution, peer relations and how to stop dangerous situations.
The president of the Heroic Imagination Project, psychologist and former Stanford professor Phil Zimbardo, is well-known for his 1971 Stanford Prison experiment. He felt there were not enough studies on heroism so he decided to create an organization that focused on creating heroes out of everyday people.
HIP encourages brave civic action in the service of humanity, with a mission to promote heroism in everyday life. Zimbardo told SFBay:
“After I met with Keenia I was really blown away by her character and I immediately wanted to work with her. Keenia is working in our educational program oriented towards educating inner city youth on how to become wise and effective heroes in everyday situations.”
About a year ago, Keenia began going to church. She says she is happy she has found God, and that her favorite verses and books are Genesis, Psalms 5, and Psalms 23, which famously in part reads:
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”