5 Things I Saw as a 9/11 First Responder
Hey guys, let's lighten the mood and talk about 9/11 for a moment. Incredibly, it's been long enough that people who are now entering their 20s were first-graders the morning the news hit. Remember those original confused reports saying there'd been some kind of freak accident that caused an airliner to crash into the World Trade Center? Then the second plane hit and, well, you've seen the clips enough you can play them in your memory.
But here's the thing -- for most of us, the story kind of ends with the collapse of the towers. The recovery operation afterward is nothing more than 20 seconds thrown in at the end of the annual video montage. Soon, the War on Terror began, a new tower was under construction, and the world had moved on ... completely failing to notice the hundreds and hundreds of people who were still dying.
Why? Well, to get to the bottom of that we asked John Feal, a first responder at Ground Zero, who walked us through a story that's simultaneously inspirational and nightmarish ...
Many First Responders Were Just Random Bystanders
If you go back and watch the news clips from the aftermath at Ground Zero, look at the swarms of people stomping around the wreckage, trying to dig victims out -- you ever wonder who those people were? The city didn't have that many rescue personnel (no city does). The answer is, they're everybody -- regular people, from all over the country. While most of us sat glued to a television in a stunned silence that was interrupted only by the occasional, "Dude, can you believe this shit?" others drove or walked toward the scene of the horror. They showed up in droves to the mountains of still-burning rubble and breathed toxic smoke for days and weeks in hopes of doing some good.
You may even recognize some of the faces that showed up to work.
The one we spoke to -- Feal -- was just a young foreman with a private demolition company. He was on a job site about an hour upstate of New York City when his crew got the news that American Airlines Flight 11 had struck the North Tower. After reports came minutes later that the South Tower had also been hit, Feal and his fellow supervisors realized America was under attack and gave the order to their men to either head home to their loved ones or get a room at a nearby hotel. Feal, however, was heading to Ground Zero with whoever wanted to come along. There were surely survivors still under the rubble, and they needed to get out now, regardless of whether or not somebody makes a Nicolas Cage movie about it.
Frankly, he seems a little too put together to be played by Nic Cage.
Feal showed up at the scene and soon found he wasn't alone -- the area was awash in volunteers, most of whom had no freaking idea at all what they were doing when it came to the task at hand -- specifically, demolition and excavation. The immediate goal was finding whatever poor souls might be hanging on under the 1.8 million tons of steel, concrete, and plaster that rescue workers just referred to as "the pile." Below it, there was a subterranean fire that would continue burning for months, a hellscape of heat, acrid smoke, and anguish that hours earlier had been a bustling plaza full of sleepy commuters shuffling toward their office jobs. No one turned the volunteers away -- the need for sheer numbers was immediate and dire.
Feal tried to play the role of foreman, finding actual qualified people among the strangers and matching them up with tasks, like if in that scene at the end of Independence Day they'd just needed Randy Quaid to drive a Bobcat. And that's how it was in those chaotic early days -- Feal would train this person on some piece of heavy machinery and pass someone else getting a crash course in first aid. There was no time to worry about who had what certification -- the experienced people had to hope they could shout enough on-the-job training to the newbies to bring them up to speed.
Soon They Were Surrounded by Families Waiting to Hear
It was quickly becoming one of the largest volunteer movements America had ever seen. Feal said that he saw mountains of donated work gloves and other equipment, stuff coming in to the point that it looked like a flea market. The responders worked 12-hour shifts with virtually no breaks, quickly wolfing down meals as they shuffled from one project to the next. Some workers set up temporary shelter or found places to sleep nearby in the city. The NYPD turned a nearby blown-out Burger King into a temporary HQ.
Never has anyone deserved more to have it their way.
If anyone needed a reminder of why they were putting themselves through all of this, they didn't have to look far. Surrounding the area were the loved ones of the missing, having rushed to the scene in some hope they'd somehow turn up alive. Feal would drive to the site every day from his home in Long Island (a long commute made longer by the fact that traffic tends to get backed up in the wake of any apocalyptic cataclysm) and waiting for him there were those desperate people. They'd extend pictures of loved ones, asking him to help find them. Other people would offer gift bags of sorts, or just generally offer their support and gratitude.
In a movie, the tireless, frantic work of these selfless people would be rewarded in the final act when they stumbled across some grateful, filthy person under the pile, getting the hero moment they so richly deserve while the credits roll. But Feal never found a single survivor.
Of course, "needle in a haystack" doesn't really do justice to how much damn haystack there was.
In fact, only 23 survivors were pulled out from the rubble after the towers collapsed (15 of them rescue workers) and none were found after the second day. And yet, people like Feal searched, hour after hour, day after day, in hopes that somebody had defied the odds. He said that one thing he's never going to forget is seeing grown men at Ground Zero weeping as they slowly realized the chances of finding anyone alive were quickly dwindling to zero.
And that's the way it goes. We could smooth it over with a joke, but the reality is that sometimes you get all of the first and middle parts of the movie -- the seemingly insurmountable challenge, the emotional ups and downs, the false hope and unexpected twists -- but you don't always get that last part, the hugs and applause and the knowledge that in the end, it was all worth it. Yet, you keep going in spite of the fact that ...
It Was the Definition of a Hazardous Work Environment
This is something else that doesn't come across in the news footage -- you see people climbing over the mountains of smoking wreckage and imagine it's like hiking over a particularly jagged volcano or traversing Mordor to get to Mt. Doom. But it wasn't a mountain, it was a pile of loose debris ready to shift and collapse at a moment's notice like a giant, lethal Jenga tower.
If you poke the wrong block, you don't get to re-stack.
So the whole time Feal and the rest were working, it was with the knowledge that the ground could give way beneath them and send them tumbling (the 2006 film World Trade Center actually gave a relatively accurate portrayal of how the debris shifting could affect workers). And each precarious step came with the knowledge that there could be people down there. Every move had to balance safety with speed, knowing that whoever might be alive (and presumably injured) below might not have time for them to be careful, but might also not survive a sudden shift in the debris.
Four-story piles of burnt wreckage aren't often known for their ability to stay put.
The danger finally caught up with Feal on Sept. 17. He was helping a crew load a truck full of debris to be taken away, as they'd done dozens of times already. Before he knew it, about eight tons of steel was falling towards him. He had to leap out of the way, and it was probably just incredible luck that only his foot got pulverized. Not that it seemed lucky at the time -- part of the foot had been severed entirely and blood was spurting several feet into the air, like a cheap effect in a low-budget slasher movie.
Feal has no idea how, but someone made a makeshift tourniquet to help cut off the bleeding, and he was rushed to a hospital. After months in the hospital undergoing various reconstructive surgeries, he miraculously lost only about half of his foot. Much more time spent in physical therapy has enabled him to walk with only a slight limp now. It was only later that he would realize ...
The Real Danger Was More Subtle
Feal has been to over 85 funerals since his time at Ground Zero, and none of those deceased were killed during the attacks or the cleanup operation -- incredibly, no one was killed or crippled in the process of the World Trade Center rescue and cleanup operation.
You saw the reason for it on the news -- as the towers fell, a giant cloud consumed Manhattan. Smoke, dust, ash -- Feal called it a "soup of toxins," and everyone at Ground Zero was breathing it. "I never put on a mask once, no one ever told me to," he says. "And that goes for a lot of people. And those who did wear one, they were the wrong [masks] anyway."
If you're not sure whether that's the correct safety gear to stop aerosol concrete, then welcome to the club.
That murdercloud hung over Ground Zero and the surrounding area for months, and the first responders were breathing it in every day. In the years since, they've gotten sick -- there's a giant Wikipedia page just for illnesses and injuries resulting from the toxins in the air. If you counted the aftermath as its own event, it'd qualify as the second deadliest terror attack in world history.
But it's actually worse than that -- if they had been sickened due to the release of, say, some deadly gas released by a supervillain, there'd at least be a known cause and cure, and the country would rally to their rescue. Instead, it was an insidious, slow-acting stew of literally thousands of different toxins and particles (just look around the room you're in -- imagine breathing tiny bits of the plaster in the walls, the carpet on the floor, the foam in your chair, the plastic in your computer, etc.). All of this made people ill in a lot of different ways, and it went on for years after the public was sick of hearing about 9/11.
It's a lot easier to remember once you've had a big lungful of office building.
The afflicted suffer from various cancers, and a respiratory disease called Sarcoidosis, which you might recognize as Dr. House's second-favorite thing to diagnose. So, the families are left with mounting medical bills and the grief over the loss of their heroic, yet mostly forgotten, loved ones. Feal has been fortunate enough to have recovered from his breathing difficulties (he'd lost about a quarter of his breathing capacity in just the short time he was on-site, but is still suffering himself from PTSD). And, just like everyone else, if these people didn't have health insurance, they were screwed. You can't write "But I was at Ground Zero!" on a six-figure hospital bill and expect them to apologize and wipe out your tab. That's not how we do things in America, kid!
In other words ...
Everyone Kind of Just Forgot About Them
Despite the fact that in the post-9/11 years America dug deep to spend several trillion dollars trying to explode the terrorists responsible, it took nearly a decade of relentless pressure on Congress to get any sort of real help for the suffering responders. In 2002, Congress did allot a small amount of spending for responder healthcare, but next to none of the victims realized they needed it yet (even the sick ones didn't know that what they were suffering from was a result of being a responder). Feal decided that this was a load of crap and decided to do something about it.
Reminder: the man has a pretty good track record when it comes to cleaning up giant messes.
He spent the better part of a decade hounding congresspeople (until early 2011), because even if you're a hero nothing gets done in Congress without years of hassling lawmakers. He spent money out of his own pocket getting other responders to come to Washington and help him fight. At the end of the day, what helped get a bill passed was a weird mix of patriotism and politician shaming. It resulted in the Health and Compensation Act, or Zadroga Bill, after James Zadroga, an NYPD officer who died of a respiratory illness in 2006.
It started when Senator Susan Collins tried to have Feal and a couple of other responders arrested. Her staff attempted to justify it by saying that it was "just protocol" to halt people hanging about the place, but the New York Daily News caught wind of it and raised hell. This wound up being a key turning point -- she eventually showed support for the Zadroga Bill, because there was probably no other way to recover from that type of story, and it overcame a Senate filibuster to get passed. So, there we go, readers! We've got our happy ending once and for all, no need to think about this any furth-
Wait, did we say "Senate" just a second ago? That doesn't bode well.
Ah, you know we can't get off that easy. We're talking about 9/11, an event that has to keep inflicting pain forever, like a freaking mummy's curse.
The Zadroga Bill that Feal and others fought so hard for has definitely saved lives, but it's going to expire in 2016. This is a problem, since the victims didn't have the kind of illnesses that could be cured with a bottle of pills and a surgery or two -- they're going to need care for the rest of their hopefully long lives. Within the next few months, Feal and his group need to get a move on with helping draft legislative extension, which he admits won't be easy, given that he has a background in laying down building foundations, not drafting legislation full of incomprehensible legalese.
And, to make things harder, the new bill needs to do more -- as The Daily Show's Jon Stewart pointed out, the original bill didn't, for instance, cover many types of cancer -- the most expensive and lethal disease a first responder could get. Apparently, there was concern that the sufferers might have gotten cancer some other way, and clearly you can see how Congress would want to make sure -- imagine the horror if it turned out they treated some 9/11 hero's cancer by mistake.
"Hospital policy is to only remove tumors with overwhelming public support."
But really, that's the lesson here -- for every war or tragedy you see on TV, there are people who suffer for decades after all of the bumper stickers have faded. Slogans about how we should "never forget" are easy. Actually footing the bill is hard.
John Feal runs the Feal Good Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping 9/11 first responders, and you can donate at that link. Isaac is a member of the Personal Experiences team here at Cracked and is incredibly honored to have had the chance to work with John on this article. You can contact him here or on Twitter. This article is dedicated to everyone whose lives were changed the morning of September 11, 2001 -- those who lost their lives or a loved one, and everyone who has served when the American people needed them most.