WHILE thousands were running away from the deadly smoke, terror and carnage that was 9/11 – they were rushing in.
Some 75,000 firefighters, police officers, paramedics and rescuers risked their own lives to save others after the terror attack 18 years ago.
In the following days, people from every state – and almost every single district – of America helped at Ground Zero – rescuing casualties, digging up bodies, cleaning up and rebuilding.
Now they are paying a high price for their selflessness – while most of the world remains oblivious to their suffering.
More than 2,000 first responders – anyone who helped out at Ground Zero, including building workers, electricians, doctors and paramedics – have died from illnesses caused by breathing in the toxic fumes that engulfed the site in the weeks after the atrocity, including 206 just this year.
As thousands more currently battle 9/11-related diseases such as cancer or severe respiratory disease, shockingly, it’s predicted that very soon the number of first responders who have died since the tragic event will overtake the number who died on the day – 2,753.
Male first responders battle breast cancer
What’s more, at least 15 men who were near the World Trade Center on that fateful day have been diagnosed with breast cancer – a type of cancer where 99 per cent of victims are women. Five of them were first responders, including an NYPD sergeant, two firefighters, an iron-worker and a highway repairman.
Many 9/11 cancer sufferers have had to undergo brutal procedures to stem the spread of the aggressive diseases – such as having their tongues cut out and breasts removed.
Other heroes were plunged into poverty, no longer able to work and without adequate healthcare coverage.
Now after a lengthy campaign for benefits and compensation, 97,000 people have been enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program, which offers care to those suffering from a 9/11-related illness – half of whom are battling not one but two diseases such as cancer, PTSD or severe respiratory disease.
Deadly cocktail of poisonous air
After the two planes struck the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, fires stoked by jet fuel raged for 99 days – spewing a cocktail of carcinogenic poisons – including asbestos, benzine, chromium and lead – into the Manhattan air.
Eager to show they would not be defeated by terrorism, authorities re-opened the area around Ground Zero days afterwards – mistakenly declaring the air safe.
It was only after the death of first responder firefighter James Zadroga in 2006, and an autopsy found his lungs were filled with glass and a host of carcinogenic substances related to Ground Zero, that scientists were able to link respiratory disease with 9/11.
Since then they have linked 68 cancers with World Trade Center toxins.
Number of deaths since set to overtake those from on the day
Lawyer Michael Barasch, who represents those fighting for the benefits and compensation, says his office is getting around 30 new 9/11-related cancer cases a week.
“We’re representing hundreds of local residents and pupils – as well as people from all over the world, who were working in the area at the time,” he said.
He predicts that, very soon, “the number of first responders who died since 9/11 will overtake the number of first responders who died on the day”.
After a long fight, a 2010 bill passed in James’s name now promises healthcare and financial aid to those affected.
And this July, President Donald Trump signed a bill extending funding for the victims’ compensation fund until 2092.
The fund, which was due to run out of money by December 2020, will now essentially be permanent following intense lobbying by first responders and comedian Jon Stewart.
But chillingly, for those first responders who are still healthy – it’s not a case of if they will become sick but when.
‘It was like having your mouth wrapped around an exhaust pipe’
Tom Wilson, 50, NYPD, had to have his tongue cut out
Tom spent days on search and rescue duty followed by weeks at Fresh Kills landfill site in Staten Island sifting through rubble from the Twin Towers looking for human remains.
“It was like having your mouth wrapped around the exhaust pipe of a motor vehicle,” he told Sun Online.
“It was a metallic acidic smell it was hard to describe but you could feel it burning your mouth and lungs as you breathed in and out.
“We ate and slept down there and in the beginning we got no protective gear.
“But back then we all thought the cough was temporary – we had no idea what was in store.”
In 2008, dad-of-five Tom was diagnosed with aggressive tongue cancer and had to have a third of his tongue cut out, his neck dissected to remove lymph glands, skin grafts and a gruelling course of radiation therapy which left him with necrosis of the jaw, which means it’s starved of blood.
Once a fit and healthy weight-lifter who loved to play sports, Tom now struggles to play-fight with his young kids in case they hit his jaw, he also suffers fatigue and can’t talk for long-periods.
Just this year, he has had to undergo surgery to repair osteonecrosis in his jaw and has to use oxygen every night through his nose. He will undergo another surgery tomorrow.
Yet Tom, who remarkably still works as a police officer for Suffolk County Police Department, Long Island, claims he is one of the lucky ones.
“Many 9/11 responders are retired or deceased but I’m still working, I’m still a police officer,” he said.
“I’ve been a police officer for almost 25 years now and when I work with young police officers a lot of them were young children when 9/11 happened and they really have no understanding.
“But I don’t have any bitterness. I was caught up in an epic event and when I look back on it I’m very proud of my service.”
‘He ditched his car and commandeered a bus to get down to Ground Zero’
Joseph Stach, firefighter, died from 9/11-related pancreatic cancer
New Yorker Darren Stach was only 12 on 9/11 but he can still vividly recall seeing his firefighter father Joseph returning from a 72-hour shift at Ground Zero, covered head to toe in dirt and dust – and with a cough that never went away.
Joseph struggled with mental and physical health problems until he was diagnosed with 9/11-related pancreatic cancer a year ago – and sadly passed away last year.
“My dad was like a real-life super hero,” Darren, 30, told Sun Online.
“His dream from when he was a little kid was to be a fireman. There’s pictures of him as a four-year-old wearing a fireman’s costume.
“Ironically he was supposed to be off on 9/11 but like so many others he got the call and he just rushed into the city.
“He actually ditched his car and commandeered a public bus with some other firefighters to get down to Ground Zero.
“He was down there for the first 72 hours straight. At one point we didn’t know what his status was because he had missed one of the check-ins. He actually had fallen asleep because he literally had worked round the clock.
“The first time I saw him in our doorway, covered in dirt and dust, it was a shocking image. I can still see the look in his eyes now.”
Darren recalls how his dad was “never the same person” after 9/11 but because he was a “tough guy” continued to work as a firefighter – through excruciating pain – until he was finally diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 2017.
As well as Darren, Joseph left behind his wife JoAnn and four other children Corrin, 24, Kayla, 22, Ryan, 20 and Tyler, 19, when he passed away in January 2018, aged 51.
“It’s really shocking for me that one of my parents has passed away so young – it’s definitely not something I ever thought I’d be dealing with at this age,” said Darren.
“I’m engaged and I would have loved for him to be at my wedding. My youngest sibling is graduating from high school this year. These are pretty sad milestones he is going to miss.”
Making an emotional first visit to the Ground Zero memorial, a tranquil fountain on the site of the two Twin Towers, Darren clutched a photo of his father and urged the world not to forget the sacrifice people like his father had made.
“They’re dying around us”
“I think outside of New York and New Jersey – not many people know about this issue,” he said.
“People in California or Texas have no idea how many people are still dying and how 9/11 is still affecting us out here.
“You know everyone’s flocking to see the new Avengers movie – but we have our real life superheroes who actually save our lives – like my dad – dying around us.
“It would be just be nice if the rest of the country and the world paid a little more attention to this.
“At the end of the day these are the people who sacrificed everything to save others and now they are paying the ultimate price.
“My dad was still young, and vibrant – he had a lot left to give.
“But I know he doesn’t regret his decision to go that day – so there’s no regret on my part either.
“I’m so proud of him I got to live with a hero – not many people get to say that.”
“His contact lenses were melted into his eyes”
Mark Harris, paramedic, died from thyroid cancer and mouth cancer
Even a year after hero paramedic Mark Harris passed away, his wife Brandi would still receive gifts, love letters and messages from him, which he set up before he died.
Mark, who died in May 2017 aged 55, was one of the first to rush into the Twin Towers after the first plane hit – before being twice buried under rubble as buildings fell around him.
“He went in as everyone was trying to leave,” Brandi, 54, from Palm Beach, Florida, told Sun Online. “He saved dozens of people before he was buried.”
“He was standing on West Street when the first tower came down with three fireman – they made a decision to run to the right but Mark went left. The other three didn’t survive.
“When the second building came down he was buried in an air pocket that was beyond hot. Soon the radios stopped working and his air tank ran out.
“His eyes were burning and when he went to take his contacts out they had melted and he pulled his corneas out with them.
“He was buried twice – the first time they dug him out after a few hours and he refused to leave, he went back to work and when Tower 7 came down he was buried again.”
Mark suffered respiratory problems following 9/11 and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014 and mouth cancer two years later.
He had to undergo invasive surgery to remove his entire mouth, tongue, gums and teeth in 2016. Brandi even recorded a last message so she always had his voice in case it never came back.
The cancer was so aggressive that just months later in January 2017 he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in his head, neck, mouth and throat.
“It’s a worldwide disgrace”
Despite three different rounds of chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation, Mark lost his battle and Brandi found him unresponsive at their home.
“I was screaming by the time the medical help came and they said ‘Brandi I am so sorry’ and I hit the floor like a ton of bricks,” she said.
“I got up and ran to him and just laid on top of him begging me to take me with him.”
Now as well as dealing with intense grief at losing her “one true love”, mum-of-four Brandi has been left with “nothing” – and has been embroiled in a long battle for the pension and benefits she deserves.
And tragically, she too is facing her own health battles after also becoming a victim of 9/11 cancer.
Brandi, who was an EMT and volunteer at the time the Twin Towers fell, has been diagnosed with breast cancer, kidney stones and multiple cysts – all related to 9/11. “Everything is 9/11. My whole world revolves around 9/11. There is no peace – every day is something new,” she said.
She wishes the world knew more about the plight of 9/11 first responders.
“I would scream off the rooftops if I could,” she added. “It’s a worldwide disgrace.
“They stopped Mark’s pension and my medical coverage within an hour of losing him.
“It’s now been over two years and nothing. They offered me $364,000 [£270,000] but if I took it I had to pay back the medical bill which was $850,000 [£632,000] for his mouth surgery and $1.8m [£1.3m] for chemo, plastic surgery and radiation. If I took it I owed them money.
“It took them 10 months for them to agree to give me three quarters of his pension but still no cheque.
“They said I can’t have his life insurance because his death certificate did not have ‘line of duty’ death and accidental death, they said I get no survivor benefits because they lost his paperwork which I have certified copies of.
“Nothing for me or the kids. They make it out to the world we are taken care of but we all have nothing and fighting a bitter battle.
“All the medics’ wives are in the same position. There are over 2,000 widows and kids in shelters now from losing everything. It’s a disgrace what the Obama government did to us and it keeps getting worse.”
One hero's battle for compensation
John Feal has been to more than 180 funerals for first responders who lost their battle against what he calls the “toxic demon” of 9/11 cancer.
He was an early responder at Ground Zero from the 12th to 17th of September – when 3,000 pounds of steel crushed his left foot.
Despite undergoing surgery hundreds of times, having a kidney removed and donated to a fellow 9/11 responder and suffering PTSD, John has dedicated his life to fighting for benefits for his fellow responders.
Since 2005 he has made over 249 trips to Washington DC and had over 1,100 meetings with members of Congress in the Senate.
“I take this personally,” John, 52, said. “These people were warriors on 9/11, they were patriots. They went home to live a normal life and then they were hit by cancers, pulmonary fibrosis and other diseases.
“At first no one believed this was caused by 9/11. They tried to demonise us and knock us off course but we kept fighting.
“I started fighting for my own benefits, got them and then started helping others to get theirs.
“I just thought of that saying ‘there’s always somebody worse off than you’. Yeah I lost half a foot but these people all had invisible diseases – they had to prove it.
“In 2005 I started a foundation – the Feal Good Foundation to help people affected by this. I won’t accept no for an answer – especially not when I know something is right and human life is at stake.
“Since 2005 I’ve helped pass nine bills for those affected by 9/11.
“But there’s always more to be done this is not an issue that is going away.
“The impact is real. The impact is going to last until the last 9/11 responder dies. This is a generation-long epidemic.”
John’s pride and joy is a park in his hometown of Nesconset, Long Island.
Donated to him for $1, the park is a poignant memorial to all those first responders who died as a result of 9/11 illness.
A 6ft tall, 60ft black granite wall lists all the names of the brave men and women who have died.
Every year the Saturday after 9/11, John holds a service in which he reads out all the names of those heroic first responders who have died in the previous year and adds their names to the wall.
This year, there will be 206 new names added to the wall, and family members, colleagues and friends will gather this weekend as those heroes’ names are read out.
Sadly, as John knows all too well, the list only ever gets longer.
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But as thousands of individuals battle disease and thousands of others grieve for their loved ones who have lost their fight against the “curse of 9/11”, their message is not one of anger or resentment.
Darren, still mourning the loss of his beloved dad, said: “If could ask anything of of the rest of the country and the rest of the world it’s when you’re going to the movies and rushing to see superheroes on screen, just remember that you’re walking amongst heroes every day who have sacrificed their lives for our safety and our happiness. These are the real heroes.
“Never forget that my dad sacrificed his life – and even on his deathbed in the hospice he said he wouldn’t change anything.
“I would love everyone to remember that.”