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De Blasio to honor those who spent years securing renewal of 9/11 funds

John Feal, founder of the Nesconset-based FealGood Foundation,

John Feal, founder of the Nesconset-based FealGood Foundation, takes a moment recently to stop at the 9/11 Memorial Glade, part of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in lower Manhattan. Credit: Charles Eckert

A united front of still-ailing uniformed first responders and volunteers — construction and office workers as well as residents — banded together for more than decade to persuade Congress to renew the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

On Monday morning, many of the men and women who gave so much after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, first at the Ground Zero pile, later in the halls of Congress, will get something back — a vow their efforts will always be remembered.

Mayor Bill de Blasio will honor them at Beacon Theatre in Manhattan during a ceremony entitled "Never Forgotten," where many will receive awards after their personal stories and persistent lobbying finally paid off last summer when federal law makers approved the fund through 2092.

Members of the House and Senate, some of whom had resisted requests to renew the fund, finally agreed in late July to seven decades of medical care and compensation for those who worked or lived near Ground Zero and were sickened by the pulverized matter and poisonous air after the Twin Towers fell.

“We got it done so nobody has to worry again,’’ said Richard Palmer of the Nesconset-based FealGood Foundation, which, led by founder John Feal, relentlessly pursued the cause of renewing the funds through a combination of military can-do sensibility and New York attitude. Taking "no" for an answer was out of the question for the group, whose members met for the first time after getting involved with the effort, Palmer said.

“We were all strangers. But everybody came together," Palmer said. "We worked in teams and looked out for each other.’’

A force to be reckoned, this band of 50 survivors repeatedly came to the United States Capitol — several in wheelchairs, some toting oxygen tanks. They made their way through the ornate and marbled legislative halls of Congress, sometimes twice a month, to tell their stories of surviving the attacks and helping in the recovery effort.

Often, their tales of selflessness at Ground Zero and years of related sickness were met with skepticism from Congress members opposed to renewing the fund and dismissive of the issue as a New York problem.

Feal said he made 282 trips to Washington to lobby Congress for renewal.

The group compiled what many called "the bible," a 90-plus page stat book containing the number of people from the lawmakers' voting districts who became sick or died from 9/11-related illnesses. Eventually, the volume of statistics delivered by the grassroots lobbying team convinced Congress members nationwide that renewing the fund was not just a New York problem.

After more than 10 years of efforts the bill, entitled, “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund,’’ was passed.

“We slept in … motels, ate bad food and made sure everyone was taken care of’’ said Palmer, 57, who became ill in 2006 from various asthmatic respiratory illnesses contracted at Ground Zero and had to undergo heart surgery.

"Then we would drive home that night in car pools,’’ said Palmer, a former warden of the Riker’s Island Adolescent Facility.

Those in the grassroots lobbying group who could walk pushed wheelchairs for the ones who couldn't. Everyone kept tabs on medication to make sure group members in need took theirs, Palmer said.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the city’s Correction Department distributed body bags, water, blankets, set up generators at the rubble that had been the Twin Towers, and ran an on-site morgue. Other correctional officers sifted through the 9/11 debris after it had been carted to a Staten Island landfill. They looked for the remains and belongings of those who perished.

Feal said being honored by the mayor and “getting accolades is difficult when people are sick and dying.’’

More than 95,000 New Yorkers are enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program, which offers medical care and monitors those who worked or lived near the World Trade Center at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In those final days before the bill’s approval, Feal said he learned the value of time. On several occasions, he asked retired NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez of Oceanside, in the closing stages of a battle with colorectal cancer, to testify before Congress. After Feal's relentless persistence, Alvarez testified at a June 11 House Judiciary hearing. Looking gaunt with gray-colored skin and sunken eyes, Alvarez, 53, made his case for the fund renewal flanked by comedian and activist Jon Stewart and other first responders. He died just over two weeks later.

Feal said he apologized to Alvarez's family for pressing him to testify in such frail condition. But his appearance before the committee personalized and rekindled a sense of urgency to make the funds permanent nearly two decades after the attacks. 

“We needed someone to tug at the heartstrings of Americans,’’ Feal said. “Hopefully, there will be peace of mind’’ knowing medical bills will be paid for those who are sick or who might become ill, he said.

Ivonne Sanchez, 54, a member of the group and a New York Fire Department EMS technician from the Riverdale section of the Bronx, said she became ill with breast and skin cancer and suffers from multiple breathing difficulties. She is currently on morphine to ease the pain.

Sanchez said she fought for Red Cross volunteers from across the country who worked at Ground Zero keeping workers like herself fed and warm. She still thinks about the undocumented, Spanish-speaking construction workers at the pile who were afraid to join the program because of deportation fears despite her reassurances.

“I worked alongside them on the pile until the end,’’ Sanchez said. “Every Sunday we stood together to have Mass at the steel beams that was a cross … The Red Cross volunteers hosed me down each time I left the site. …’’

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