Supporters look on during a groundbreaking ceremony for a park...

Supporters look on during a groundbreaking ceremony for a park honoring 9/11 first-responders in Nesconset. (April 3, 2011) Credit: Ed Betz

Residents, volunteers, lawmakers and families of 9/11 rescue workers who died in the years after the attacks gathered in Nesconset Sunday to break ground on a monument and memorial park dedicated to those who said they were sickened by the toxic dust that swirled over Ground Zero more than nine years ago.

"They made sacrifices that we live with every day," said Greta Helmke of Hauppauge, vice president of the 9/11 Responders Remembered park committee. "Even when they were sick and dying and couldn't walk, not one of them said, 'I wish I didn't go.' "

Helmke's husband, Robert, a New York City police officer, worked at Ground Zero after the attacks and died of colon cancer in 2007 at the age of 43.

The 60-foot-long black granite memorial wall will sit on the northeast corner of Gibbs Pond Road and Smithtown Boulevard in Nesconset. It will include the names of 1,000 first responders who have died since 9/11, and leaves room for the inscription of more names. The plans also call for a tree-lined walkway and a sanctuary with benches. The cost will total about $100,000, said Mark Mancini, the project's architect. It's being paid for by private donations.

"We think it will be the only park of its kind in the nation," Mancini said.

More than 50,000 residents statewide, and about 7,300 on Long Island, are enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Registry, which monitors the health of people directly exposed to the disaster.

In December, Congress passed the Zadroga 9/11 health care bill that provides $4.3 billion for medical screening and treatment of firefighters, police officers, first responders and other workers who become ill after 9/11.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and Suffolk County Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) attended the event, which included a fundraising walk and afternoon barbecue. With 500 participants, the walk raised $15,000.

John Feal, president of the FealGood Foundation and a 9/11 first responder, said he has attended 49 funerals of 9/11 workers in the last five years. He advocates for Ground Zero workers.

"Our journey started when the first person died from a 9/11-related illness and this journey will continue. It will never end," Feal said.

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