By Euna Lee
Over 300 family members and friends gathered on Sept. 10 in Nesconset, Long Island, to unveil the wall at the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park, the first memorial monument in the nation for the first responders who died from illnesses related to ground zero.
Nesconset, the site of this memorial, became the honorary hometown for ground zero responders. After the attacks, many of the responders came from out of town.
“My son knows it’s Daddy’s wall. For me it will be great to see my husband’s name etched in stone on something other than a grave site,” said Jennifer McNamara, a widow of a New York City fireman.
As the ceremony began, bagpipe players played “Amazing Grace.” Soon afterward, a solemn feeling filled the air, triggering the memories of widows, children, families and friends who had gathered in the park. The first responders who were on the scene on 9/11 were also among them.
Anthony Fiorillo, a former Marine, went down to the World Trade Center site immediately without stopping to think of the danger. He vividly recalled how much of a shock it was even for a Marine who had just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.
“It looked like a war torn city, a lot of chaos,” said Fiorillo clearing his throat and pausing. “Pain, suffering, smoke and smell… I will never forget.”
The scene was not only embedded in a tough Marine’s memory but also in the mind of Glenn Klein, a former emergency unit police officer, who arrived on the scene minutes before the second tower collapsed.
“We had police officers in the building but didn’t know how many were in there,” said Klein. “It turned out that we lost 24 police officers and 14 of them were from my unit. I live with that every day.”
Klein now lives with his painful memory and relies on pills for various health problems. A few years ago he developed pains in his stomach, which lead to surgery to remove pre-cancerous colon polyps. Klein believes his illness was linked to the 800 hours he put in at ground zero.
“There are a lot more [first responders who were] sicker than me,” he said. “I was wearing my gas mask most of time while I was working in ground zero.”
Nearly 1,000 first responders have died since 9/11. Many developed cancer and respiratory diseases from breathing toxins and eating in the contaminated air while rescuing survivors, finding remains of bodies and cleaning up the World Trade Center site, like Klein did. Now their families are burdened with the consequences of their illnesses.
John McNamara, a firefighter, passed away from colon cancer in August 2009.
“My husband spent over 500 hours digging in the rubble,” McNamara recalls. “I was four months pregnant when he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.”
His wife, Jennifer ended up becoming his caretaker after he was diagnosed. The McNamara’s medical bill was covered through the New York City fire department’s benefits.
But not every first responder’s family has been as lucky. The widow and three children of first responder Philip Rooney, a former carpenter, for example, lost health insurance after Rooney died from leukemia. Rooney’s mother believes his death is related to the 400 hours he spent working at ground zero. Today the family is dealing with the pile of medical bills.
“It’s up to her head,” Rooney’s mother Mary said looking at Rooney’s wife.
To help families like the Rooneys, the James Zadroga 911 Health and Compensation Act, which provides financial assistance to sick 9/11 workers and monitors their health, was signed into law early 2011. While many families are finally getting some help after 10 years, some responder’s families are still fighting to get cancer included as one of the bill’s listed medical conditions.
“There are a lot of people who don’t get benefits, who don’t get the government’s help,” McNamara said. “It shouldn’t be an issue. It should just be. Our first responders rushed in that day and every day. Whenever they were called they went without question.”