9/11 first responders dedicated to helping others

John Feal, a first-responder at Ground Zero, has John Feal, a first-responder at Ground Zero, has tattoos that commemorate Sept. 11. A contractor from Nesconset, Feal started the "Feal Good Foundation" to help raise awareness of the health problems suffered by people who worked at Ground Zero. (Sept. 8, 2009) Photo Credit: Joe Epstein

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Ken Sprecht, Mike Valentin and John Feal share a hard-earned belief: The declaration of Sept. 11 as a national day of service and remembrance by congressional passage and presidential signature seemed a gesture that, in real terms, was too late and too little.

That's because the three Long Island men - all first responders at Ground Zero - say they, and others like them, already have dedicated their lives toward helping those affected by 9/11. What they need most, they say, is actual deed-doers and coverage of treatment for those with health troubles stemming from Sept. 11 and their time at Ground Zero in the months afterward.

"We do the work every day," said Sprecht, 40, of Levittown, a retired New York City firefighter. "We never need to be told by anybody to remember what Sept. 11 is."

Moved to continue helping long after their work at "the pile" was done, Sprecht, Valentin and Feal all started their own charitable service foundations, primarily aimed at assisting first responders.

Sprecht and fellow Sept. 11 firefighter John McNamara founded the New York City Firefighters Brotherhood Foundation last year. Like scores of other first responders, McNamara suffered health problems he said were caused from breathing in the toxins at Ground Zero. McNamara died of colon cancer last month at the age of 44.

During its short existence, Sprecht's foundation has donated more than $15,000 to about a dozen ailing and injured firefighters and their families. But the tiring amount of work and drying-up of donations have made the foundation's future uncertain, Sprecht said.

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Like Sprecht, Valentin, of Ronkonkoma, said the biggest help his group, the 9/11 Police Aid Foundation, could receive is the federal government's passage of the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act. It would provide testing and treatment for those suffering from 9/11-related illnesses.

"What's more important? A national day of service or the guys that are dying?" said Valentin, 44, a retired NYPD officer who has suffered from several respiratory problems since working at Ground Zero. His foundation has helped more than 150 sick Ground Zero police officers and their families pay medical and other bills.

One of the largest Long Island-based foundations aimed at helping Sept. 11's first responders was started by a man who doesn't even consider himself one. John Feal, 42, of Nesconset, was working as a demolition supervisor at Ground Zero when an 8,000- pound steel beam crushed his left foot.

Feal's struggles to win his workers' compensation and Social Security benefits spurred him to create the Feal Good Foundation in 2005. The group has helped more than 600 first responders with donations and assistance in securing benefits.

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He, too, wishes government officials would take over his work in helping the heroes of Sept. 11.

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"I don't need the president signing a letter [making] 9/11 a day of service and remembrance for me to remember 9/11," Feal said. "I live it every day."

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