As the sun set over New York City on September 11, 2001, the world came together in grief and defiance. The city’s financial district was unrecognizable. Once an economic powerhouse, it was now a shattered wreck of broken rubble and smoldering debris. Thousands were dead. And nothing would ever be the same again – especially for the first responders who experienced Ground Zero.
As a moment of collective trauma, the 9/11 terror attacks are forever burned into the national psyche. Orchestrated by the al-Qaeda Islamic terror network, they claimed nearly 3,000 lives and left many more injured. And with the destruction of infrastructure and private property, the loss of businesses and other economic damages, the financial costs ran to hundreds of billions of dollars.
For most Americans, the dust settled long ago. In fact, nearly two decades have now passed since 9/11. Wars have been waged in the Middle East. And the mastermind behind the attacks, Osama Bin Laden was assassinated by U.S. Special Forces in 2011. However, for thousands of first responders, the terror remains palpable.
The attack on New York City had begun at 8:46 a.m. You see, five hijackers steered American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower, destroying several floors and setting it ablaze. And approximately 17 minutes later, another group of hijackers steered United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower. Both buildings collapsed a short time later, submerging lower Manhattan in dust, smoke and chaos.
Now, the first responders included some 75,000 paramedics, police officers, firefighters and other emergency service personnel. In an unprecedented show of selflessness and solidarity, volunteers and rescuers arrived from across America during subsequent days. But largely unbeknownst to the nation, thousands of those brave heroes are now paying a dreadful price for their courage and compassion.
Among the first to arrive at Ground Zero was Ken Haskell, a man who had followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a firefighter. And his brothers Timmy and Tom were firefighters too. In a twist of fate, Haskell had been off-duty that day. But he arrived at Ground Zero some time after his brothers, both of whom perished in the collapse of the twin towers.
Speaking to National Public Radio (NPR) in 2011, Haskell described the absolute devastation of the scene. He said, “That was a realization that set in very quickly for me. The site had been reduced so that anything that wasn’t metal was reduced to ash or completely pulverized… the likelihood of anyone surviving was minimal.”
But Captain Jay Jonas was among the lucky few firefighters who did manage to survive. Unbelievably, he’d been on the North Tower’s 27th floor when the South Tower tumbled. And while he and his men evacuated, their progress was slow. On the way, they stopped to help a woman called Josephine Harris, who they carried down with them. Then, as they arrived on the fourth floor, the North Tower started to fall too.
Speaking to NPR in 2011, Jonas gave a vivid description of the experience. He said, “The floor started to move. Since the collapse started 1,300 feet away, the sound was off in the distance. And it got louder as it got closer. And you could hear the floors hitting the other floors, and it created tremendous vibrations in the stairway. You could also hear the sound of twisting steel all around you.”
So the tower crashed on top of them. But miraculously, they all survived. After clearing their mouths and noses of dust, the firefighters decided to continue their descent. Except now the stairway had been destroyed and they were trapped beneath a heap of rubble. So they waited there for hours. Then, the next morning, they glimpsed a slim beam of sunlight cutting through the darkness.
Jonas told NPR, “I look up and saw a sliver of blue sky… All of a sudden I realized we’re on top of the World Trade Center, [which was] four or five stories tall.” The leading firefighter subsequently escaped from the rubble, but felt no joy. He said, “You want to be happy, but you can’t… looking out and knowing how much pain and grief was going to be going on over there.”
Indeed, for some firefighters, the grief of 9/11 went on for years and only ended with death. For example, in 2018 Thomas Phelan and Keith Young became the 172nd and 173rd firefighters to have died as a direct result of their selfless service on 9/11. In fact, they died within 24 hours of each other and represented the sixth and seventh such deaths in that year.
Interestingly, Phelan hadn’t been employed as a firefighter at the time of the attacks. But his contribution that day prepared him for a later career with the New York City Fire Department. In fact, he’d been working as a pilot for a ferry that shuttled tourists to the Statue of Liberty.
As such, he played a vital role in rescuing thousands of people stranded in lower Manhattan. Indeed, with public transport suspended, Phelan and other boat pilots proved essential to the evacuation effort. They ferried approximately half a million people to safety, representing a larger evacuation than at Dunkirk in World War Two.
Speaking to Spectrum News NY1, Phelan’s friend Bryan Lang praised his modesty and described him as an unsung hero. He said, “When everybody was trying to get away, Thomas got that boat in position to help and evacuate. And what’s great is that he never talked about it. You would never ever know what Thomas did.”
Meanwhile, Young was a Brooklyn-based firefighter at the time of the attack. And he had around three years on the job. Working at Ground Zero, he participated in the nine month-long recovery operation. As well as a brave and dedicated firefighter, he was a renowned chef with a degree in culinary studies.
Known as the “firehouse chef”, Young converted his Midwood station into a thriving kitchen where he prepared treats for his colleagues. In fact, he published his own cookbook in 2003 and enjoyed notable television appearances. Furthermore, he twice won awards on the Food Network’s Chopped program and featured on Throwdown! – a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Bobby Flay.
Shockingly, both Young and Phelan were among hundreds of thousands of people exposed to toxic dust thrown up by the collapse of the twin towers. You see, when thousands of gallons of jet fuel caught fire, it engulfed the debris and spewed out a haze of harmful particles. Yes, the air swirled with benzine, chromium, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, lead, mercury, ground glass, asbestos and thousands of other chemicals.
And the dust has been linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, musculoskeletal diseases and cancer. For example, a study has found a higher incidence of cancer among a sample of 34,000 rescue workers exposed to the dust. This was carried out by the World Trade Centre Registry, which was set up to monitor the ongoing health effects of 9/11.
Tragically, Phelan died from an aggressive form of lung cancer at the age of 45. Amazingly, he’d been a marathon runner and was diagnosed with the illness just two months before his death on Friday, March 16. His funeral was attended by hundreds of his colleagues in the New York Fire Department.
Among the mourners was Gerald Fitzgerald, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFANYC), who was also a friend of Phelan for more than 25 years. Speaking to the BBC news site in 2019, he described Phelan as “a very talented, very nice, good-hearted guy.” Phelan even received a tribute from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who described him as a hero.
Meanwhile, Young’s battle with cancer had started in December 2015. His pelvis required an operation to remove a large tumor, and he subsequently retired from his firefighting duties. Sadly, he died aged 53 on March 17, leaving a son and two daughters. Tragically, his wife Beth had already died of breast cancer in 2012.
Writing on Facebook, his daughter Kaley paid tribute to her father’s courage and positivity. She wrote, “He fought so hard and kept believing in miracles. There are so many adjectives we could use to describe my dad: funny, smart, kind. He was just an incredible human.”
According to Dr. Michael Crane, the director of the World Trade Center Health Program at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital, more deaths are likely. Speaking to the Never Forget Project, he said, “To this day, we really don’t know everything that was in that dust cloud, [but] certainly we are going to see more cancer.”
What’s more, studies by the New York City Fire Department say that up to 9,000 firefighters now have an elevated risk of cancer due to their exposure to 9/11 dust. And a study by the WTC Health Program – a government organization providing medical treatment to first responders – corroborates those findings. You see, the program found significantly higher rates of prostate and thyroid cancer rates among 21,000 rescue workers.
Speaking to the BBC, Fitzgerald estimated that some 2,000 of the 9/11 firefighters had developed cancer. This represents approximately 12.5 percent of all active and retired firefighters who attended Ground Zero that day. He said, “We are living proof of the 9/11 effects, of that toxic soup we were breathing in. Every time, the thought goes through your head – could it be me next? But you can’t live like that.”
Of course, firefighters are not the only ones to have suffered from the 9/11 dust. For instance, Tom Wilson of the New York Police Department was assigned to a landfill site where his job was to search Twin Tower wreckage for dead bodies. Speaking to The Sun’s website in 2019, he described how the work gave him a burning sensation, “like having your mouth wrapped around the exhaust pipe of a motor vehicle.”
He said, “It was a metallic, acidic smell. It was hard to describe but you could feel it burning your mouth and lungs as you breathed in and out. We ate and slept down there and in the beginning we got no protective gear. But back then we all thought the cough was temporary – we had no idea what was in store.”
Devastatingly, Wilson, who is a father of five, developed tongue cancer in 2008. The treatment included intensive radiation therapy which left him with a necrotic jaw. Also, surgeons dissected his neck and removed his lymph glands, and a third of his tongue had to be amputated. Although he was still employed by the Suffolk County Police Department, he suffered ongoing fatigue and could only speak for brief periods.
Meanwhile, Darren Stach lost his father Joseph, a New York City firefighter, to pancreatic cancer in 2017. Speaking to The Sun’s website in 2019, he described seeing his dad come home from a three-day shift at Ground Zero. Indeed, he was completely covered with dust and had a cough that he never managed to shake off.
He said, “I think outside of New York and New Jersey, not many people know about this issue… how many people are still dying and how 9/11 is still affecting us out here. You know everyone’s flocking to see the new Avengers movies, but we have our real-life superheroes who actually save our lives – like my dad – dying around us.”
As Stach went on to explain, “At the end of the day these are the people who sacrificed everything to save others and now they are paying the ultimate price. My dad was still young, and vibrant – he had a lot left to give. But I know he doesn’t regret his decision to go that day – so there’s no regret on my part either. I’m so proud of him. I got to live with a hero.”
Meanwhile, 9/11 activist John Feal attended Ground Zero from September 12 to 17 and suffered a life-changing injury when 3,000 pounds of steel fell on his left foot. Since then, he has fought tirelessly for all those who worked in the aftermath of the attack. He even donated one of his kidneys to a fellow responder.
In fact, Feal’s relentless pursuit of justice has taken him to Washington D.C. more than 250 times. And members of Congress in the Senate have met with him more than 1,100 times. He told The Sun website, “Since 2005, I’ve helped pass nine bills for those affected by 9/11. I started fighting for my own benefits, got them and then started helping others to get theirs.”
Feal added, “These people were warriors on 9/11, they were patriots. They went home to live a normal life and then they were hit by cancers, pulmonary fibrosis and other diseases. At first no one believed this was caused by 9/11. They tried to demonize us and knock us off course, but we kept fighting.”
Now, in 2011 lawmakers passed the so-called Zadroga Act, which authorized the creation of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The bill was named after firefighter and first responder James Zadroga, who died in 2006. And his autopsy had revealed abundant glass and carcinogenic substances in his lungs. For the first time, scientists were able to connect Ground Zero with respiratory disease.
But the bill passed only after a long struggle. And the fund it created was initially designed to only last until December 2020. However, in July 2019 President Donald Trump signed a new law extending the fund until 2092. That said, the extension had met initial opposition from Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, who thought it too costly. In fact, the bill only passed after persistent lobbying.
Touchingly, comedian Jon Stewart was among those who helped with the campaign. And during his testimony before the congressional committee, he criticized lawmakers for not showing up. He said, “There is not a person here, there is not an empty chair on that stage, that didn’t tweet out, ‘Never forget the heroes of 9/11.’ Well, here they are. And where are they? Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity – time.”
Speaking to The Sun website, Feal – who has attended some 180 funerals of first responders – emphasized the ongoing nature of their struggle. He said, “There’s always more to be done. This is not an issue that is going away. The impact is real. The impact is going to last until the last 9/11 responder dies. This is a generation-long epidemic.”
In a park in Feal’s hometown of Nesconset on Long Island, there is a vast granite wall inscribed with the names of every person to have perished from 9/11 illnesses. And each year on September 11, he holds a memorial service for those who died in the last year. In 2019 he added 206 new names, including those of Young and Phelan. Sadly, they will not be the last.