More than 500 first responders, rescue workers and well wishers gathered in lower Manhattan Tuesday to remember those who died of illnesses contracted after working the pile at Ground Zero.
The event inside the September 11 Memorial & Museum commemorated the 15th anniversary of the completion of the cleanup at the World Trade Center site. Museum Director Alice Greenwald used the occasion to announce plans for a permanent memorial to the men and women who rushed to the scene after the twin towers fell.
With emotions still raw more than 15 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, a panel of first responders shared their experiences of working on the rescue, recovery and cleanup operations.
“No matter how beat up we were we came back. The fortitude was incredible,” said Jim Gaffney of Local 40 Ironworker, among the panelists at the annual tribute to afflicted first responders.
Iron and steel workers came from across the nation when “New York was in trouble. It gave us a lot of hope,” Gaffney said as he fought back tears.
The memorial will be located in a grassy clearing on the southwest corner of the 8-acre plaza not far from the Survivor Tree.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who serves as chairman of the museum board, has committed funding for the project, said museum spokesman Michael Frazier. The cost of the dedication will be determined based on the type of design, he said.
During the panel discussion, those who took part in the recovery efforts pined for the days after the attacks when the city and the nation were united.
“I wish for those days when we came together as a community,’’ said Tom McHale, a police officer with the New York New Jersey Port Authority.
McHale said he still has a shoe box with gifts of a candy bar and hand wash sent to rescue workers from a young boy in Texas.
A special moment of silence was offered to remember Levittown native and retired FDNY firefighter Raymond Pfeifer, 59, who died Sunday of cancer linked to his work at Ground Zero.
The wheelchair bound 27-year FDNY veteran was instrumental in lobbying Congress to approve the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. The act provides funds to cover medical expenses for people suffering from 9/11-related illnesses.
Since the attacks, 77,000 first responders and survivors have participated in the resulting World Trade Center Health Program. More than 39,000 have been afflicted with at least one illness. More than 6,000 have been stricken with a type of cancer that can be traced back to the World Trade Center ruins, according to museum officials.
John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, which spearheaded the lobbying effort, said Tuesday that Pfeifer, who had also served as an East Meadow volunteer firefighter, will be remembered as someone who “lived life with class and dignity. His cancer never took him out of character.”
A color guard and bag pipe procession with a choir singing the “Star Spangled Banner” underscored the solemn mood of Tuesday’s commemoration.
Afterward an NYPD officer played “Taps” with the World Trade Center surrey wall as his backdrop. The cement steel reinforced wall withstood the towers’ collapse and kept the Hudson River waters from flooding lower Manhattan.