Long Island has the only memorial in the country that honors the first responders who have died from 9/11 related illnesses in the years since - three, 6 foot tall granite slabs at the 9/11 Responders Remembered Memorial Park in Nesconset.
Each slab of the memorial has three words engraved across its dark, shiny surface.
“Courage, honor, and sacrifice,” said John Feal, the founder of the Feal Good Foundation that helps 9/11 responders and their families get compensation. He’s also a first responder. “It tells the story of these men and women, uniform and non-uniform, who risked their lives without prejudice 14 years ago, and, while they didn’t die on 9/11, they died because of 9/11 and its aftermath.”
The aftermath for the 600 responders honored on this memorial is chronic illness- things like cancer and respiratory diseases caused by toxic dust at Ground Zero.
Feal said since he helped build this memorial in 2010, he’s been adding more names to the wall as more people pass away. This weekend, Feal will have added 120 names this year alone. He’s vetting 200 more people to be included on the wall.
“Every day I search social media, obituaries, and follow when someone passes away from a 9/11 related illness, so it’s morbid and there’s no pleasure in doing it,” he said. “Because once we find when somebody does pass away, we’ve got to get in touch with the families, and there’s a lot of background checks. And again, we’re not the baseball hall of fame, we’re not trying to keep people out. But we also have a responsibility to the 9/11 community to honor and respect these people the right way.”
A 2013 study published by the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found evidence of a link between cancer and 9/11. Of more than 20,000 World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers surveyed, 552 were diagnosed with cancer between 9/11 and December 2008. Feal said only the names of responders who lose their battle with their illnesses end up on the memorial wall.
“You know, if I died in a car accident today I wouldn’t go on that wall…you have to have died from a 9/11 related illness,” he said. “You had to have been at ground zero.”
After 9/11, the federal government set up a victim compensation fund that was active from 2001 to 2003 for people who were near ground zero and got sick. The Zadroga Act reactivated that fund in 2010, establishing a nearly $3 billion victim’s compensation fund, to cover emotional and financial burdens for people who got sick and for their families. But it’s set to expire.
“The fund will close down in September of 2016, so we don’t know how many claims we will eventually get,” said Shiela Birnbaum, who runs the federal Victim Compensation Fund. “It is likely that we will have more awards than we have money.”
Under the Zadroga act, Feal got 10 percent of his claim award after a steel beam took part of his foot while he was clearing debris at ground zero. He said that, compared to his friends with chronic 9/11-related illnesses, he is lucky. That’s why he’s lobbying in Washington D.C. next week with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. She proposed a bill that would permanently extend the Zadroga Act.
“We can get the bill passed tomorrow for a hundred years but we’re gonna lose more people, and, uh, I think the sad reality and the painful reality of it is that we’re going to lose more good men and women and the park board is going to have a responsibility to ensure that those names go up there, and we continue to do these ceremonies,” Feal said.
Ceremonies like the one Feal has planned for Saturday, Sept. 12.
“You know, when you hear the names read and then the ringing of the bell, that bell goes through you. It’s like, uh, it’s like, cutting you with a knife, right through you. It’s like a sword,” he said. “And to hear someone’s name and, especially, to see the reaction of the families in the audience when they hear their loved ones named by the ringing of that bell, I think part of them they sense pride and how proud they are but also how much they terribly miss their loved ones, husbands or wives.”
Friends and family of first responders from across the country will attend the ceremony on the morning of Sept. 12, at the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park.