Retired New York firefighter, Ray Pfeifer spent his 27-year career fighting the blazes to save lives day after day. Then, on and after September 11th, he searched for months through the World Trade Center rubble for survivors and, eventually, the remains of his fellow firefighters and other victims.
Pfeifer’s battle didn’t end in the dust and debris of the New York City streets. Now, besides fighting stage-4 cancer, he’s also fighting for the continued health protection of Ground Zero first responders.
Why Do 9/11 First-Responders Need Protecting?
When the World Trade Center Twin Towers crumbled to the ground on September 11th, no one knew how much of an impact the toxic dust that settled over lower Manhattan would have. The air the first responders and recovery volunteers breathed into their lungs was full of cancer-causing asbestos and other carcinogens such as lead and mercury.
Now, people are being diagnosed with serious illnesses caused by the exposure, such as mesothelioma and other cancers. Mesothelioma develops after a person has been exposed to asbestos, and, unfortunately, the diagnosis sometimes doesn’t happen for 20 to 50 years. As it’s only been 14 years since 9/11, the majority of diagnoses may have yet to even happen.
Dr. Jacqueline Moline stated in her testimony before The United States House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health:
“The future health outlook for responders still remains uncertain. The long-term consequences of such unique exposures are not yet fully known...It will take decades to determine any collective tally of exactly what the health effects might be.”
If the Director of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program at Mount Sinai is concerned about the long litany of illnesses caused on and after September 11th that have yet to manifest, shouldn’t we all be?
What Is Ray Pfeifer Fighting for, and Why Is He a Hero?
On January 9th, 2016, Ray Pfeifer was awarded the key to the city by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at City Hall for his work in reauthorizing the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. Originally signed into law in 2010, it provided federal funding to cover the medical expenses and provide compensation to 9/11 first responders. However, the James Zadroga Act was only originally funded for 5 years, and it expired in September of 2015.
Even though first-responders, Democratic politicians, celebrities, and other do-gooders rallied for an extension long before the bill ran out, the so-called “do-nothing” Congress let the original James Zadroga Act expire without taking action. Ray Pfeifer couldn’t stay silent as senators seemed unmotivated to reauthorize the act. He teamed up with fellow first responders and other passionate individuals – such as Jon Stewart – the former host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, to go door-to-door and rally lawmakers for support.
Or, as Stewart put it, “we decided to see if shame would work,” by calling out senators who vowed to “never forget” the tragedies of 9/11, yet hadn’t pledged their support of the reauthorization bill. Calling himself Pfeifer’s “wingman,” Stewart says, “"My job there was to have a camera and embarrass people.”
And embarrass them he did. The Reauthorization Act was passed on December 18th, 2015, and Stewart, in combination with other strong vocal advocates, is credited with playing a major role in the bill’s passing.
How Important Was the James Zadroga Reauthorization Act?
Now, health monitoring and treatment for the first responders of September 11th, 2001 has been extended for 75 additional years, until 2090. This reauthorization will allow time for undiagnosed diseases, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, to make themselves known, and for individuals diagnosed (or their relatives) to get the proper treatment they deserve.
Ever the modest individual, retired FDNY Pfeifer refuses to take credit for his work in supporting this bill. As his reminds the audience, "I was a very small part. I was just a poster boy."
Ray Pfeifer might not think of himself as a hero, but isn't modesty one trait of a true hero?