'So many are sick and dying,' says 9/11 survivor advocate

by David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 10 September 2021 09:14 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Activist John Feal (L) addresses a news conference about a bill to compensate first responders who are suffering health problems after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, December 21, 2010. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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John Feal, a prominent Sept. 11 survivor advocate, told the Thomson Reuters about his efforts to ensure healthcare and support for victims and first responders after the attacks

By David Sherfinski

WASHINGTON, Sept 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Demolitions specialist John Feal was among hundreds of people doing recovery work at the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York when a beam fell on him and crushed his left foot.

Undeterred by the injury, Feal started campaigning for 9/11 victims and first responders and set up a non-profit that monitors Ground Zero health care issues.

As a result of working around hazardous materials at three sites after the attacks two decades ago, emergency personnel and other workers have contracted cancer or respiratory illnesses.

Feal was instrumental in advocating for a series of bills passed by Congress, with 2019 legislation extending a victim compensation fund's claim filing deadline for deaths and illnesses related to Sept. 11 attacks until 2090.

Yet the advocate said responders are still dying - many having contracted COVID-19 while already seriously ill - and nearly 300 people would be memorialised this month.

To mark two decades since the attacks, Feal spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation about his injury, his advocacy, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on 9/11 responders.

Can you take us back to your injury 20 years ago?

"I'm never going to block out the smell of destruction and devastation and carnage ... it's probably why I don't get much sleep, especially as we get closer to this day of remembrance.

My story is so insignificant and so small compared to everybody else.

On Sept. 17, about a half-an-hour before my shift ended, roughly 8,000 pounds of steel crushed my left foot.

The doctor said "we're going to try to save you; you might lose your leg". I said I'm not losing anything – I'm going to survive. And losing half a foot was my consolation.

It's been surgery after surgery after surgery. I can't complain. People say they had a good day or a bad day. You had a day, and there are so many people that can't say (the same)."

How do you view things two decades later?

"A lot of people call this the 20-year anniversary. I have a problem calling it an anniversary. I think of it as a remembrance. Anniversaries are usually celebrated.

Nobody owns 9/11 – everybody's a shareholder. Some just have more stock than others. For many, it's 20 years. And in many ways, it feels like 20 years.

But for those in the 9/11 community, whether they lost a loved one, whether they got sick ... it's the longest day in history. It just has not ended and we need to remember that.

We were galvanized 20 years ago. We could do it again – whether it's for a brief moment in history or this Saturday (Sept. 11) – but I pray that people take time to remember those that we lost and those that we continue to lose."

What do you make of the U.S. government's treatment of 9/11 responders?

"For the beginning, I give them a big fat zero – they sucked. They all failed. Now, they're doing a much better job.

When we passed the bill (for the victim compensation fund) the first time, there were no cancers in the bill. And then ... we got four cancers added and now we have 68 cancers covered.

In 2010, (in terms of our advocacy) we were like that little engine that could. 2015, we were that big engine that did. Then in 2019, we just steamrolled everybody.

We have created a recipe for people with other important issues and causes to use – and I will give them the blueprints.

We used to sit at the little kid table at Thanksgiving – now we sit at the head of the table. And we have to continue to advocate.

(But) while we got legislation passed until 2090, there is no magic pill in that bill that's going to save anybody."

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected injured or ill responders?

We're being decimated by 9/11-related illnesses, and now you add COVID. Every 9/11 responder, volunteer - everybody's looking over their shoulder thinking "when do I get cancer?".

We've lost probably about a hundred people that we know of to COVID. About half of those had serious illnesses like pulmonary fibrosis ... or cancer.

The health care program gives them a fighting chance and the compensation side offsets their financial burdens, and if they pass away, relieves their family of any financial worries.

But there's really nothing to celebrate there because so many are sick and dying - and are still dying.

We're dying off quicker than we should be right now."

What's your abiding takeaway from the events 20 years ago?

"I choose to remember the good that I saw down there – the humanity, the empathy – strangers hugging and crying and helping each other up.

I'm going to keep that tattooed in my brain – I'm never going to let that go."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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(Reporting by David Sherfinski. Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)