The Long Shadow of 9/11
By Tom Deignan, Contributor
Ongoing health conditions, ranging from cancer to pulmonary diseases, caused by working at Ground Zero cast a shadow on celebrations of FDNY’s 150th Year.
Ladder 123 is located on a gritty stretch of St. John’s Place off of Schenectady Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Ladder 123 shares quarters with Engine 234 as well as Battalion 38, and back in May, the whole firehouse – along with houses in all five boroughs of New York City – opened its doors to the neighborhood as part of ceremonies celebrating the FDNY’s 150th anniversary.
“For a century and a half, FDNY members have risked their lives bravely protecting life and property in our city – an enduring commitment steeped in pride and tradition,” FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said back in May. “That tradition of service is devoted to the people of our great city and we’re inviting them all – every New Yorker – to join us in this historic celebration. We want them to come and meet the men and women who serve them with selfless dedication.”
For the past decade and a half, however, it has been impossible to celebrate the history and dedication of the FDNY without also recalling the sacrifices made on September 11. And as firefighters and health advocates adamantly note, 9/11 is still claiming victims, from first responders to former residents who once called downtown Manhattan home.
Remembering Johnny Mac
Look no further than Ladder 123, where Irish American firefighter John McNamara – “Johnny Mac” to friends – was working in September 2001.
By all accounts, McNamara was the picture of health. But he spent months at Ground Zero after the terror attacks searching through the rubble for survivors and victims. In June of 2006, McNamara was diagnosed with cancer of the colon, stomach and liver. He was just 41 at the time. His wife was three months pregnant with their son Jack, who was born later that year with a head of red hair to match his father’s.
McNamara would die three years later.
In her eulogy, McNamara’s widow Jennifer said: “From our first date, I knew I would marry him…. A friend saw us and later told me it looked like we’d been together forever. It felt like that, too. John was so easy to be with. I knew he felt the same way I did when he chose taking me to the Irish Fair over watching Sunday football.”
Jennifer later discovered a handwritten list of things John wished for, ranging from the construction of a youth center on Long Island to specific funeral plans, including having some of his ashes scattered in Ireland.
The final entry? “To never have to use this list because I’m gonna (with Jenn and Jack) beat this damned disease.”
The numbers of deaths and illnesses attributed to toxic exposure at Ground Zero are nothing short of staggering. According to one estimate, over 30,000 people are receiving health treatment of some kind linked to time spent in downtown Manhattan after 9/11.
Over 100 firefighters have died from 9/11 health issues, and over 1,000 have contracted a cancer related to 9/11, FDNY officials have said. In September of 2014, three retired firefighters – Daniel Heglund, Robert Leaver and Lt. Howard Bischoff – all died on the same day as a result of illnesses contracted as a result of 9/11, according to the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.
The fight is on to make sure that those who are still battling illness get the services they need.
In June, not long after the FDNY wrapped up its 150th Anniversary celebrations, hundreds of firefighters flocked to Washington, D.C. to advocate for help battling the ongoing health effects of 9/11. Congress was debating an extension of the Zadroga Act, designed to assist those in need.
“Without an extension of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, tens of thousands of volunteers and first responders who helped clean up Ground Zero won’t be able to get federal help with their health care,” The New York Daily News reported.
Zadroga was a New York City cop who died in 2006 at age 34 after spending time at Ground Zero.
“If the Zadroga Act expires, we have a lot of people who would be in dire straits,” said Uniformed Fire Officers Association legislative director Richard Alles.
As the FDNY looks back on 150 years of service, the first thing worth noting is just how unusual the past 15 years have been.
“The lingering effects of 9/11 have no precedent in the long history of the FDNY,” says Irish American historian Terry Golway, whose father was a firefighter and whose books include So Others Might Live, a history of the FDNY.
“No other catastrophe in New York history was like 9/11, and no other event in the FDNY’s history had such a traumatic effect on the department.”
The FDNY as we know it today has its roots in two aspects of American life the Irish knew all too well: local politics and the Civil War.
In the mid-19th century, New York City was patrolled by a series of volunteer fire comp-anies. They had close ties to local politics as practiced by Tammany Hall and often competed – sometimes physically – to extinguish fires.
With the Civil War raging in July of 1863, federal authorities announced a draft in New York – at the same time that certain Democratic Party members were warning New York’s Irish and German immigrants to prepare for emancipation of slaves and what it would mean in terms of job competition. The violence that followed the draft announcement – targeting African Americans and the rich (who could avoid the draft by paying $300) – came to be known as The New York City Draft Riots. Though eventually quelled by the largely Irish NYPD, the response to the mayhem in terms of extinguishing the many fires set by the rioters was deemed woefully inadequate. (Some fire companies even participated in the violence.) Pressure grew for a more organized and professional firefighting squad. By 1865, the Metropolitan Fire Department was rolled out, the first force paid to protect New Yorkers from fire.
There was only one problem – at least as far as Tammany Hall was concerned. The Metropolitans were run by state officials rather than those based in New York City. That meant that power – and budgetary money – resided in Albany rather than in New York City.
It was not until three years later, when Tammany loyalist and former New York City mayor John Hoffman became governor of New York State, that control of the fire department was set in New York City. Thus was born the Fire Department of New York.
Safety and Health Concerns
This also gave rise to a new concern for the health and safety of firefighters. After all, on August 24th 1865, firefighter Robert Wintringham was killed in the line of duty – considered the modern FDNY’s first fatality. Thousands of others endured a variety of terrible ailments in subsequent decades.
“Without question many firefighters in the past suffered from the effects of breathing in toxic fumes. Some of those ailments may have never been properly diagnosed,” Terry Golway notes.
What has happened since 9/11, of course, has prompted action on a much larger scale. A bipartisan group of elected representatives, including Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Peter King, recently wrote a letter to Congressional leaders arguing that 9/11 health issues must be a priority. They wrote:
“Today more than 70,000 first responders or survivors residing in 429 of the 435 congressional districts across the country participate in the WTC Health Program, receiving medical monitoring and treatment for those injuries. Cancers, respiratory ailments and digestive tract disorders are just a few of the complications for those who participated in 9/11 rescue and cleanup efforts.”
They added that elected representatives must “ensure first responders and survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania continue to receive the monitoring and care they deserve and need.”
Advocates are hoping a vote to approve the extension of the Zadroga Act will be taken by September 11, 2015.
Other advocates believe it is time to permanently remember those who died from the after-effects of 9/11. An online petition seeks to establish a downtown Manhattan memorial for those who died in the years following 9/11.
The petition states: “So many people who worked on the pile at Ground Zero in the rescue and recovery effort, as well as Lower Manhattan residents and returning workers, were exposed to a lethal cocktail of chemicals, pulverized concrete, and carcinogens. Thousands have become gravely ill and many have died terrible deaths. 9/11 killed them later. They should be honored with a memorial wall on the plaza, not just an exhibition in the unfinished museum.”
A Final Memory
Finally, there is the ongoing work of the foundations that have been established to raise awareness and funds for health services, as well as to honor those who died after serving at Ground Zero. These include the Johnny Mac Foundation, which held its annual golf outing at the Dyker Beach Golf Club in Brooklyn in July. Funds will contribute to the construction of a youth center in Blue Point, Long Island, where John McNamara lived with his wife and son.
“A place to go for counseling, computers, study, skateboard park, a local meeting place for everything from scouting to the local civic groups,” is how McNamara envisioned the youth center in his handwritten wish list.
There’s one final thing on McNamara’s list that’s worth mentioning and that he wanted to see.
“Recognition that my cancer was caused by the toxins I breathed in at the WTC the two and a half months I was honored to work there.”
9/11 Bill Passes the Senate
On July 23, 2019 the Senate overwhelmingly passed the 9/11 victim fund bill, 97-2. Tom Deignan reported on the historic occasion for Irish America.
New Yorkers were sweating through a brutal heat wave at the end of July 2019 when grim news began circulating, from Briggs Avenue in the Bronx and East 111th Street in Harlem to the quieter suburbs of Westchester County and the historically Irish enclaves in Long Island and the New York City boroughs, where generations of New York City cops, firefighters, and other civil servants settled to raise families.
Two more firefighters had died from 9/11-related illnesses: Kevin Nolan, 58, who retired out of Engine 79 in the Bronx in 2007, and Richard Driscoll, a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran, who retired out of Harlem’s Engine 91 in 2002.
Nolan and Driscoll were, respectively, the 199th and 200th members of the FDNY to die from illnesses related to the time they spent at the wreckage of the World Trade Center site, searching for potential survivors and victims.
“Another grim milestone,” read the front page of the New York Daily News, over the larger headline: “No End to Tragedy.”
That both Driscoll and Nolan were Irish-American illustrates the tremendous contributions Irish first responders made in the wake of the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. All these years later, Irish-American firefighters, police officers, EMTs, construction workers, and others are wrestling with the long-term health effects – and costs – of breathing in toxic dust during the search, rescue, and clean-up phases at “the pile” in lower Manhattan, and the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island.
“The lingering effects of 9/11 have no precedent in the long history of the FDNY,” Irish-American historian Terry Golway told Irish America in 2015. Golway’s father was a firefighter, and his books include So Others Might Live, a history of the FDNY.
Billions of Dollars
Worse, even as the terror attacks continue to take a toll – with the 18th anniversary of 9/11 coming this September – billions of dollars in government aid for first responders and their families has been bottled up in Washington. In fact, the 200th death of a New York City firefighter came just as Congress fiercely debated how to – or even if they should – fund an extension of previous bills designed to assist 9/11 victims.
But the tireless advocacy of first responders – with the help of a bold-faced name – eventually paid off. At the end of July, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act.”
The bill – with a long-term price tag of over $10 billion – is designed to avoid the acrimonious debates that have popped up every few years related to funding 9/11 health issues.
“The country has moved on, and rightfully so,” Michael O’Connell, a retired Irish-American FDNY lieutenant, told The New York Times after the bill was passed. He added: “(But) it’s in front of our eyes. We’re in hospices. We’re seeing people pass away right in front of our very eyes.”
The moment the healthcare legislation passed, retired cops, firefighters, and other advocates, “leapt to their feet in the usually hushed (Senate) chamber to lead a standing ovation,” the Times reported, while outside the Senate chambers, “they choked back tears, embraced, and clapped one another on the back.”
But aside from being bittersweet – given all the pain and suffering, nearly two decades later – this legislative victory was also never guaranteed.
Back in June, actor and comedian Jon Stewart – a longtime advocate for 9/11 survivors – joined a group of first responders in Washington to lobby for permanent aid. But it appeared that numerous members of the House sub-committee either did not attend the meeting or were moving back and forth between different meetings. In short, the meeting seemed sparsely attended, which did not sit well with Stewart.
“Why this bill doesn’t have unanimous consent is beyond my comprehension,” he said, later adding: “As I sit here today, I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting healthcare and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to. Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.”
The hearing also featured a gaunt, retired New York City police detective – whose name had been lent to the legislation – Luis Alvarez. Media accounts featured photos of a strapping Alvarez from a decade ago, in stark contrast to the frail figure, who endured dozens of chemotherapy treatments during his battle with colorectal cancer.
“I will not stand by and watch as my friends with cancer from 9/11 like me are valued less than anyone else because of when they get sick. You made me come here the day before my 69th round of chemo. I’m going to make sure that you never forget to take care of the 9/11 responders,” Alvarez told congressional reps.
“I’m lucky to have the healthcare that I’ve got, but there are guys out there who don’t have it,” Alvarez said in a later interview with Fox News. “In terms of going through the stress of fighting cancer, they’re also fighting the financial stress of the healthcare.”
Alvarez added: “I’m no one special, and I did what all the other guys did. Now we are paying the price for it. I got sick 16 years after the fact. And there’s workers out there who say, ‘This isn’t going to happen to me. I’m O.K. The time has passed.’ The time doesn’t … is not going to pass.”
Alvarez died as the bill he lent his name to was still being debated. He was 53.
The House eventually passed the 9/11 bill by an overwhelming majority. However, when it moved on to the Senate, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul voiced concerns about the bill’s cost – and government debt in general.
“We’re adding debt at about a trillion dollars a year,” Paul said. “Any new spending we are approaching, any new program that’s going to have the longevity of 70, 80 years should be offset by cutting spending that’s less valuable. We need to, at the very least, have this debate.”
This did not sit well with prominent advocate John Feal, a construction worker severely injured during the 9/11 clean-up.
“They’re hypocrites at best. No, not only are they hypocrites, they’re bottom-feeders. They’re opportunists,” said Feal, of Sen. Paul, as well as Sen. Mike Lee, of Utah, both self-described fiscal conservatives, who voiced concerns about the health bill’s cost.
Paul and Lee ended up as the only two senators voting against the 9/11 health bill, which President Donald Trump eventually signed into law.
Meanwhile, the grim toll kept mounting: Just before passing the “Never Forget the Heroes” bill, Staten Island resident and retired NYPD detective, Christopher Cranston – who spent months at both Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills landfill after the terror attacks – died from 9/11-related cancer.
He was 48 years old.
For more details about The Johnny Mac Foundation, or to donate, go to www.johnnymacfoundation.org.
This article was originally published in the August / September 2015 of Irish America.