Ray Pfeifer, a retired FDNY firefighter from Hicksville who fought a yearslong battle with cancer attributed to his work at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and lobbied Congress to fund health care for his fellow first responders, died Sunday, officials said.
Pfeifer, 59, a 27-year FDNY veteran who spent about eight months working on the pile in lower Manhattan, made more than a dozen trips to Washington, D.C., to convince hesitant lawmakers to pass the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act, named to honor an NYPD officer who died of respiratory disease contracted at Ground Zero.
In 2015, Congress voted to extend the coverage first approved five years earlier until 2090 — a victory that many credit, in part, to Pfeifer’s activism.
“Ray Pfeifer was a true fighter who bravely battled fires as a New York City Firefighter and fought tirelessly for all first responders who — like him — suffered from World Trade Center related illness,” Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said in a statement. “The entire FDNY family deeply mourns his loss.”
At a 2012 East Meadow event to raise funds for his costly treatments, Pfeifer told Newsday of his frustrations getting 9/11 first responders help paying their medical bills.
“It never was about me. I was one of many thousands that worked on the pile. . . . We’re still waiting to prove that’s where my cancer comes from? . . . I would like to see the government step up and do the right thing so we don’t have to fundraise for our treatments.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Sunday: “With the death of Ray Pfeifer, New York City has lost a hero and an inspiration. My prayers are with his family and all of the FDNY.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also offered his condolences via Twitter: “You meet very few truly great men in your life. Ray was one of them.”
Pfeifer, a Levittown native, also worked as a volunteer firefighter in East Meadow. He was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer that spread to his bones nine years after 9/11.
He weathered years of chemotherapy and radiation. After part of one of his legs was amputated, he walked with braces and also used a wheelchair.
But Pfeifer was determined. He traversed the halls of Congress to tell lawmakers — many of whom were from outside the metropolitan area and persuaded by studies that cast doubt on the connection between the illnesses of many first responders and their work at the World Trade Center.
John Feal, founder of the Nesconset-based FealGood Foundation, which led the fight with Pfeifer and comedian Jon Stewart to get Zadroga passed and renewed, said he was the “epitome of dignity and class” in the way he conducted himself.
“Ray always said he was the poster child for this whole thing,” Feal said. “I don’t think Ray was the poster child for this. Ray was the backbone . . . Ray never gave himself enough credit.”
Pfeifer, who in recent years was celebrated for his dogged work on behalf of ill first responders, received keys to New York City and Nassau County, and dropped the New York Islanders’ ceremonial first puck before a game. Still, he publicly downplayed his individual role.
“All I did was go down there and fight the politicians who wanted to fight us,” Pfeifer told Newsday in 2016 about his appearances before Congress.
He is survived by wife Caryn and two children — a son, Terence, a member of the FDNY, and his daughter, Taylor, hoping to become a Suffolk police officer, officials said. Funeral arrangements are still to be determined.