Robert Wilson, who served more than two decades in the Centereach Fire Department, said he and 11 of his colleagues didn’t hesitate to respond to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
More than 17 years later, Wilson finds himself in a battle for his life and what he believes is his right to take line-of-duty leave after contracting cancer he said is linked to the 45 or so days he spent in the Twin Towers rubble. Wilson said the Centereach Fire Department has no official record of his Ground Zero service, even though he previously provided proof, and therefore has denied his request for line-of-duty leave.
Wilson, accompanied by other Centereach firefighters, went before the department's board of fire commissioners at its regular meeting Tuesday night in an effort to convince them that his case has merit.
“I placed my trust in the fire department to keep track of these documents,” he told the commissioners at their meeting at the fire department. "And you have let me and my fellow responders down.”
His voice cracking at times, Wilson read off the names of other Centereach firefighters who joined him at Ground Zero.
They included Don Gleason, who told the board he saw a vehicle that carried him and other Centereach firefighters including Wilson to and from Ground Zero, on a BBC documentary about the attacks. Gleason said he also saw footage of Centereach firefighters at work after the attacks and recalled dropping off FDNY firefighters at a firehouse in Brooklyn.
“That’s really the only proof that I have that we were there," Gleason told the five-member board, "except we all saw each other.”
The alleged oversight could delay indefinitely Wilson reaching a milestone — becoming a lifetime member of the department in July and collecting related social and financial benefits — if the time he worked at Ground Zero is assessed as personal leave instead of line-of-duty leave.
He has appealed to the chief of the department, Robert Corley, but said he was not successful in convincing the top officer he deserves the line-of-duty leave.
Corley, who attended the meeting, declined to comment earlier Tuesday about whether the department misplaced Wilson's documents. But Corley did say a final decision on Wilson’s case had not been made.
Wilson said his colleagues will vouch for him. Several did Tuesday night, both in statements to the board and in letters read aloud, attesting to Wilson's presence at the pile.
He also presented the commissioners with an October 2002 report detailing his exposure to Ground Zero toxins, a document requested by the fire department's top brass at the time.
Wilson has a powerful advocate in his corner — John Feal, the Nesconset-based executive director of the FealGood Foundation.
The foundation has worked for years as an advocate for firefighters, police officers and medical workers who responded to the attacks. Feal said the controversy over Wilson’s 9/11 service is “ridiculous” because he believes Wilson obviously was at Ground Zero.
“Mr. Wilson’s illnesses are certified by the World Trade Center Health Program,” he said, referring to the federal program that provides medical assistance to people who became ill in the aftermath of the attacks. “For the chief to say anything other than 'you are granted line-of-duty leave' ... has no place in the 9/11 community.”
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story contained incorrect information about line-of-duty leave. Line-of-duty leave is unpaid.