Seventeen years ago, thousands of first responders rushed to Ground Zero to face the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Among these brave men and women was demolition supervisor John Feal.
Just 5 days after arriving at the scene, Feal was seriously injured when 8,000 pounds of steel fell and crushed his foot. The accident cost him half his foot, his job, and nearly his life. To add insult to his injury, the government denied him any medical compensation.
Later, in support groups, Feal discovered his was a common story in the first-responder community: one of life-altering trauma worsened by difficult-to-treat illnesses and injuries. It was his fellow responders’ tragic experiences that inspired him to form his advocacy group, the FealGood Foundation, and begin fighting for responders’ well-earned rights to better treatment.
Yet, as he has now come forward to warn us, he continues to fight for the same thing. The number of people diagnosed with 9/11-related cancer continues to grow – this year surpassing 10,000 – while their resources threaten to disappear.
The Fight for the Zadroga Act
Last week, Feal appeared on Fox News alongside Richard Alles, retired deputy chief of the FDNY, and for the first time since appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor” in 2014, former “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. Together, the 3 men were instrumental in advocating for the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.
The Zadroga Act, designed to provide medical benefits for 9/11 survivors through the World Trade Center Health Program and Victim Compensation Fund, was years in the making. It took Feal and other injured responders no fewer than 128 trips to Capitol Hill to convince lawmakers to pass the bill. It took another 5-year battle to get it renewed. This was when Jon Stewart joined the struggle, using his influence to help add 5 more years to the survivors’ compensation program.
Unfortunately, those 5 years are up in 2020, meaning Feal and his team are due yet another fight with Congress.
“These guys are relentless in their advocacy because they have to be,” Stewart said. “The resistance down in Washington was astonishing. They had to walk through walls to get this done and it continues to this day.”
Another issue that continues to this day, Stewart added, is the “gestation period for diseases like mesothelioma.”
The Growing Number of 9/11-Related Cancer Cases, Including Mesothelioma
When 9/11 responders rushed into the carnage to rescue the injured and retrieve the dead, they had only a sense of the immediate dangers: falling debris, fire, and suffocating dust, for example.
“The pit down at Ground Zero… the only thing you can liken it to are burn pits in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Stewart said. “What these guys were exposed to is stunning.”
Yet they had no idea what the dust clouds carried and the long-term implications. One of the toxic substances in the air was asbestos, the carcinogenic mineral responsible for mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other lethal diseases. Because of the long gestation (or latency) period of these diseases, we only recently saw a spike in first responders’ diagnoses and deaths. The FealGood Foundation added 163 names to the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park just this year. Feal himself has been to 181 funerals.
“Not a week goes by where we don’t lose someone from the responder community. The flight apartment has lost 183 members post-9-11,” ex-deputy chief Alles added. “What I’ve been exposed to now is the survivor community.”
Although Alles represented only first responders when lobbying with Feal, the survivor community has grown exponentially to include bystanders: office workers, teachers and students, people who were kids then and now adults in their mid-20s, all developing cancer.
How the Advocates’ Efforts Have Helped
Continued (and increased) funding will be essential in getting these thousands of people the treatment they need. The first hurdle is to increase awareness among the public that the problem is still ongoing.
“Everybody in the 9/11 community who doesn’t have cancer is looking over their shoulder going, ‘When am I next?’” Feal said. “The struggle is real. The pain and suffering is real. Most people just think two buildings came down that day and innocent lives were lost to senseless violence, but there’s been so many moving parts since then.”
Meanwhile, Stewart continues his grassroots effort to support the responders struggling today – most recently fighting unnecessary changes to the 9/11 healthcare program and announcing modifications to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum to honor rescue workers who died from 9/11-related illness.
“I loved doing [The Daily Show], but there is also a great satisfaction of being with the team, getting your hands dirty, and really being able to work with people on an individual basis,” Stewart said. “You can shout into the camera sometimes and you can feel a little helpless.”
It will take a united effort from him, Alles, Feal, and other advocacy groups to secure another renewal. But they’re ready.
“Tens of thousands of people across our country are sick from 9/11. It’s not just a New York issue,” Feal said. “There’s a deadline coming. People are sick and dying. I’m telling Congress here today that I’m coming, and I’ll be wearing bells.”
Watch the full interview with Fox News here.