"I Choose to Remember the Good" — An Interview with a 9/11 First Responder & Advocate

John Feal, a prominent September 11th survivor advocate shares about his efforts to ensure healthcare and support for victims and first responders after the attacks

WASHINGTON, Sept 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Demolitions specialist John Feal was among hundreds of people doing recovery work at the site of the September 11th, 2001, attacks in New York when a beam fell on him and crushed his left foot.

Undeterred by the injury, Feal started campaigning for 9/11 victims and first responders and set up a non-profit that monitors Ground Zero health care issues.

John Feal in front of The United States Capitol / Photo courtesy of the Feal Good Foundation

As a result of working around hazardous materials at three sites after the attacks two decades ago, emergency personnel and other workers have contracted cancer or respiratory illnesses.

Feal was instrumental in advocating for a series of bills passed by Congress, with 2019 legislation extending a victim compensation fund's claim filing deadline for deaths and illnesses related to the September 11th attacks until 2090.

Yet the advocate said responders are still dying - many having contracted COVID-19 while already seriously ill - and nearly 300 people would be memorialized this month.

To mark two decades since the attacks, Feal spoke to our partners at the Thomson Reuters Foundation about his injury, his advocacy, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on 9/11 responders:

Can you take us back to your injury 20 years ago?

I'm never going to block out the smell of destruction and devastation and carnage ... it's probably why I don't get much sleep, especially as we get closer to this day of remembrance.

My story is so insignificant and so small compared to everybody else.

On Sept. 17, about a half-an-hour before my shift ended, roughly 8,000 pounds of steel crushed my left foot.

The doctor said, "we're going to try to save you; you might lose your leg". I said I'm not losing anything – I'm going to survive. And losing half a foot was my consolation.

It's been surgery after surgery after surgery. I can't complain. People say they had a good day or a bad day. You had a day, and there are so many people that can't say (the same).

How do you view things two decades later?

A lot of people call this the 20-year anniversary. I have a problem calling it an anniversary. I think of it as a remembrance. Anniversaries are usually celebrated.

Nobody owns 9/11 – everybody's a shareholder. Some just have more stock than others. For many, it's 20 years. And in many ways, it feels like 20 years.

Photo courtesy of the Feal Good Foundation

But for those in the 9/11 community, whether they lost a loved one, whether they got sick ... it's the longest day in history. It just has not ended and we need to remember that.

We were galvanized 20 years ago. We could do it again – whether it's for a brief moment in history or this Saturday (Sept. 11) – but I pray that people take time to remember those that we lost and those that we continue to lose.

"For the beginning, I give them a big fat zero – they sucked. They all failed. Now, they're doing a much better job."

What do you make of the U.S. government's treatment of 9/11 responders?

For the beginning, I give them a big fat zero – they sucked. They all failed. Now, they're doing a much better job.

When we passed the bill (for the victim compensation fund) the first time, there were no cancers in the bill. And then ... we got four cancers added and now we have 68 cancers covered.

In 2010, (in terms of our advocacy) we were like that little engine that could. 2015, we were that big engine that did. Then in 2019, we just steamrolled everybody.

Photo courtesy of the Feal Good Foundation

We have created a recipe for people with other important issues and causes to use – and I will give them the blueprints.

We used to sit at the little kid table at Thanksgiving – now we sit at the head of the table. And we have to continue to advocate.

(But) while we got legislation passed until 2090, there is no magic pill in that bill that's going to save anybody.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected injured or ill responders?

We're being decimated by 9/11-related illnesses, and now you add COVID. Every 9/11 responder, volunteer - everybody's looking over their shoulder thinking "when do I get cancer?".

We've lost probably about a hundred people that we know of to COVID. About half of those had serious illnesses like pulmonary fibrosis ... or cancer.

Jon Stewart and John Feal / Photo courtesy of the Feal Good Foundation

The health care program gives them a fighting chance and the compensation side offsets their financial burdens, and if they pass away, relieves their family of any financial worries.

But there's really nothing to celebrate there because so many are sick and dying - and are still dying.

We're dying off quicker than we should be right now.

"I choose to remember the good that I saw down there – the humanity, the empathy – strangers hugging and crying and helping each other up."

What's your abiding takeaway from the events 20 years ago?

I choose to remember the good that I saw down there – the humanity, the empathy – strangers hugging and crying and helping each other up.

I'm going to keep that tattooed in my brain – I'm never going to let that go.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Reporting by David Sherfinski. Editing by Kieran Guilbert. This article was originally published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org.

Article Details

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