Thomas Phelan, who was captain of the Statue of Liberty ferry, didn’t hesitate when he watched the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. Transport was shut down, bridges and roads were closed; thousands upon thousands of people found themselves completely stranded. He knew what to do.
Phelan turned his tour boat into a rescue vessel. He played a critical role in what is now regarded the largest evacuation in New York City history, the turning point in his career, and sadly, the event to end his life. Thomas Phelan died Friday, age 45, of 9/11-related lung cancer.
His name won’t be added to the official tally of 2,977 people killed in the attacks, but his cancer did develop as a direct result of exposure to Ground Zero’s toxic dust. Phelan, who later became an FDNY firefighter, was not the only first responder to die in recent months from a WTC-related illness. Worse, he won’t be the last.
Hero Marks 172nd Death from 9/11-Related Illness
The evacuation by boat covered the distance between Lower Manhattan and New Jersey, taking an estimated 500,000 people to safety in only 9 hours. Phelan’s boat alone carried hundreds of passengers and supplies.
“When everybody was trying to get away, Thomas got that boat in position to help and evacuate,” his friend Bryan Lang said in an interview. “And what’s great is that he never talked about it. You would never ever know what Thomas did.”
Phelan went on to join the New York Fire Department 2 years later. He was assigned to Engine 55 before moving up to marine control, and credited with 1 save during his career. Colleagues described him as a “master mariner.”
However, like many other mariners who took part in the evacuation, Phelan suddenly fell ill. He was diagnosed with cancer only 2 months ago and died a day before Keith Young, a fellow New York firefighter, also died of cancer. According to records maintained by the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, Young brought the tally of 9/11-related illness deaths to 173.
9/11 and Mesothelioma: Why Are People Still Dying?
According to CDC data, injuries weren’t the only devastation to arise from the 9/11 aftermath. Many suffered trauma or depression. And among an estimated 400,000 people exposed to the cloud of toxins shrouding Lower Manhattan for days following the attacks, cases of asthma, chronic coughs, and cancer are alarmingly common.
The dust and smoke from Ground Zero rubble contained a “toxic plume” of fiberglass, mercury, benzene, and asbestos, a significant component on the World Trade Center’s structure and the sole cause of fatal diseases like mesothelioma.
Asbestos-related cancers have only now become problematic because symptoms from exposure can take up to several decades to emerge. Like Phelan, the nearly 6,000 first responders now living with cancer were only recently diagnosed.
And that’s just in New York. Several types of cancer, including cancers of the prostate, skin, brain, stomach, and colon, already affect firefighters inordinately across the nation. Mesothelioma alone affects firefighters at double the rate of the general population, according to the largest ever firefighter study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Studies like these have helped raise awareness of the health challenges of 9/11 survivors, while resources like the Zadroga Act have helped fund their treatment. But the fight for their health is far from over. Officials fear we are on the brink of an exponential rise in cancer cases among first responders who, like Thomas Phelan, risked their lives in unknown ways to save others.
Phelan’s funeral was held on last Tuesday and drew hundreds of firefighters to the streets of Brooklyn. To send your condolences, visit his obituary page.