James Leonard, a retired FDNY lieutenant who developed asthma problems...

James Leonard, a retired FDNY lieutenant who developed asthma problems and prostate cancer after working at Ground Zero in September 2001, at his home on Monday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

James Leonard spent the past several months agonizing with fear and doubt that the federal bureaucracy that had sworn never to forget his bravery would leave his family in the lurch, just when help was needed the most.

The retired FDNY lieutenant from North Merrick spent nearly a week working on the smoldering wreckage at Ground Zero, voluntarily giving his time, every ounce of energy, and ultimately his health during New York's darkest hours.

Years after September 2001 came the diagnosis of prostate cancer.

By then, tens of thousands of other first responders, along with everyday New Yorkers, had gotten ill from the toxins floating in the air of lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center's twin towers crumbled.

The federally funded 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund was nearly drained of reserves. And officials grimly warned Leonard, now 62, that his future medical benefits would be cut in half, leaving his disconsolate family to pick up the remaining costs. 

"I was mad," Leonard said Monday. "I was angry that this could happen so many years later."

Finally, the federal government has kept its promise, as President Donald Trump on Monday signed into law legislation ensuring essentially permanent financial support of the compensation fund.

"It's such a relief," Leonard said as he watched the televised bill signing from his home on Nassau's South Shore. "I know that my family will be taken care of."

Michael Barasch is an attorney who represents Leonard and 15,000 other clients with 9/11-related illnesses, including 2,500 from Long Island. He said while the extension won't heal the ailments of first responders, it will assure they receive proper treatment for the rest of their lives.

"It's a wonderful and satisfying day, but no reason to celebrate," said Barasch, who attended the ceremony in the White House's Rose Garden.

Leonard spent 24 years with the FDNY, first with Engine Company No. 53 in East Harlem and later at Battalion 54 in Queens before retiring in 2005.

When the hijacked airliners crashed into the trade center, Leonard and his crew raced to the scene. They dug through rubble and searched for survivors. 

Leonard toiled for 30 consecutive hours at Ground Zero. He didn't go home to his wife, Donna, and their sons, Kyle and Patrick, for five days. "We were trying to do whatever we could do when we could do it," he recalled.

But his courage came at a stiff price.

First it was asthma, a bitter pill to swallow for the active runner and softball player.

Then doctors became alarmed at Leonard's elevated PSA levels during his annual physical and ordered more tests. The prostate cancer diagnosis, while "traumatic," was of little surprise, Leonard said.

The cancer was caught early and surgeons at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan conducted a procedure implanting permanent radioactive seeds into his prostate. The cancer now is in remission.

Many of Leonard's former colleagues have not been as fortunate.

He has lost more than a dozen friends and a family member to 9/11-related illnesses, including his brother-in-law, Kevin Miller, an ironworker who was diagnosed with melanoma in his foot. Later the cancer spread to his lungs and Miller died in August 2016. Another brother-in-law, Donald Miller, also an ironworker, suffers from neuropathy and has lost feeling in his feet, he said.

Leonard and his family continue to endure the medical aftershocks stemming from that Tuesday morning in September nearly 18 years ago. The doctor's visits, prescriptions and follow-up care may never end. But the worry about who will pay for it all finally eased Monday.

"They vowed to never forget," he said. "Well I won't forget. I was there. I felt it personally. It's etched in my brain forever."

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