Comedian Jon Stewart wept Friday as he eulogized a New York City firefighter who spent years lobbying Congress for health benefits for first responders who fell ill after working on rescue and recovery operations in the ruins of the World Trade Center.
Speaking from the pulpit of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Hicksville, Stewart praised his friend, Raymond Joseph Pfeifer, 59, who died Sunday of cancer that officials say he contracted during eight months of digging through toxic debris at Ground Zero.
“The irony here is Ray would have loved a day like today where people from all over — the town, city, the country — pay respect to a man who did right,” Stewart said.
He said Pfeifer would have sat in the back of the church and wondered what all the fuss was about.
“ ‘What, did Lincoln die?’ ” Pfeifer would quip, Stewart said. “And we’d say, ‘No, Ray, it’s for you.’ And he’d say, ‘I’m just a kid from Levittown.’ It’s almost like he didn’t know how special he was. But he was.”
Stewart and Pfeifer, a 27-year FDNY veteran who lived in Hicksville and retired in 2014, became friends after they were paired up to lobby Congress to reauthorize the James Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act, named for an NYPD detective who died from respiratory disease.
The legislation was approved by Congress in 2010 but those federal health benefits would have expired in 2015 had it not been for work by a group of people that included Stewart, Pfeifer, and other survivors.
The former “Daily Show” host remembered when he and Pfeifer went from office to office in Washington, D.C., trying to persuade senators to support the Zadrogra reauthorization.
Stewart was frustrated that all they had come away with was a bunch of politicians’ business cards. But Pfeifer pulled out a stack of prayer cards — collected at the funerals of firefighters killed on 9/11.
“He said, ‘I got all the cards I need,’ ” recalled Stewart, holding back tears.
Since Pfeifer’s death, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and many others have heralded his work on behalf of fellow first responders.
Sept. 11, 2001, was supposed to be Pfeifer’s day off. He was playing golf with fellow off-duty firefighters when they heard that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.
They rushed to their firehouse, Engine 40, Ladder 35, near Lincoln Center in Manhattan, grabbed their gear and headed downtown. Of the 343 firefighters who died on that day, 11 came from Pfeifer’s station house.
“Make no mistake, Ray Pfeifer died in the line of duty because of illness in the terrible terrorist attacks of 9/11,” Stewart said. “But more importantly, Ray Pfeifer lived in the line of duty, now and forever.”