Hundreds gathered Saturday in Nesconset for the reading of the names of 170 people who’ve been added to the wall of 9/11 first responders who have died in the past year.
The names read aloud to a crowd of about 700 people ranged from NYPD detectives and FDNY firefighters to volunteers and chaplains who worked at Ground Zero, thenfaced health consequences nearly two decades later.
Sean McNamee, a retired FDNY firefighter from Babylon, stood at the wall reading the name of his friend Thomas Neal, who died in May from a 9/11-related cancer after developing a brain tumor.
"I’m here for him and every year it’s like ripping off a scab," McNamee said. "Half the people here are sick or have PTSD or cancer. It didn’t end 19 years ago and it’s not going to end until everyone is gone. Their families will be here and IT shouldn’t ever end."
The wall, which has 1,700 names, has stood since 2011 when the FealGood Foundation and Nesconset founder John Feal dedicated the memorial at 9/11 Responders Remembered Park to recognize first responders who have died of 9/11-related illnesses, including 9/11 advocate and retired NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez of Oceanside.
"Today we honor your loved ones," Feal said. "While many others have forgotten, we have not. Anyone who lost a loved one it is devastating, gut-wrenching. Those who lost a loved one from March to now and didn’t get a proper funeral, my heart bleeds for you. My soul is crushed. Let today be the closure you need."
Each of the 170 names was read while the Ray Pfiefer memorial bell was rung.
Visitors sobbed through the reading of names and musical tributes, including by the Nassau County Firefighters Pipe and Drum Band. After the ceremony, many families took paper to etch the names of their loved ones on the wall.
Feal lamented the challenges that have come with 2020, though he said pandemic restrictions meant survivors could be with their family.
"We’ve all had bad days, but we got to spend time with families revamping our lives, and our self-resolve was tested," Feal said. "I’m pretty sure it IS all going to make you a stronger person and a better person."
Feal has worked with 9/11 first responders to lobby Congress to permanently extend the Victims Compensation Fund to cover health benefits and expenses for first responders. He said he helped pass 13 bills for survivors, though he doesn’t celebrate because the work is not done.
Feal is set to return to Congress on Tuesday with actor and advocate Jon Stewart to lobby for coverage of duty-related illnesses for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although organizers said this year’s event was difficult to plan during the pandemic, Feal wanted to keep a promise to 9/11 families.
"In the midst of a global pandemic, we must honor the heroes who sacrificed for us," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said after the ceremony. "We’re going through a great crisis in our country and I hope we can draw inspiration from the heroes of 9/11 in that moment that brought us together."
At an unrelated event Saturday afternoon in Port Jefferson, about 100 people took part in a Setauket Patriots parade that organizers said was to remember 9/11. The group gathered at the commuter parking lot at the LIRR Port Jefferson station and walked down Main Street to the ferry at West Broadway.
With Morgan Campbell