Unsung 9/11 Heroes Finally Get Their Own Memorial – The New York Times

[What you need to know to start the day: Get New York Today in your inbox.]

Every year on Sept. 11, relatives and friends of people killed at the World Trade Center return to the memorial that fills the footprints of the towers. The mayor, even presidential candidates, have joined them as the victims’ names are read. Many run their fingers over some of the thousands of names etched in bronze and wedge stems of flowers into the letters.

But there is another anniversary related to the attacks, one that often receives far less attention: May 30, the day in 2002 when the cleanup of ground zero officially concluded with a modest ceremony.

This year was different. On Thursday, a crowd of families, friends and survivors with ties to a segment of victims that continues to grow gathered under a canopy of fog as the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City dedicated an addition called the Memorial Glade. It is meant to acknowledge the ever-extending tendrils of the tragedy, recognizing the people — largely rescue and recovery workers — whose illnesses and deaths came years after the towers collapsed.

“The story of 9/11 is only half written,” said Rob Serra, 39, who was a rookie with the New York City Fire Department when he worked at ground zero.

He arrived at Thursday’s ceremony in a wheelchair; he has neuropathy, which numbs his feet. He also has had polyps removed from his sinuses and suffers from traumatic stress disorder, as well as other illnesses that doctors have linked to his work at ground zero.

“We might have stopped the recovery efforts on that day,” he added, “but for a lot of us, it never stopped.”

The glade consists of a pathway flanked by six monoliths protruding from the ground that weigh as much as 18 tons and are inlaid with steel from the towers. An inscription on a marker commemorates “those whose actions in our time of need led to their injury, sickness and death.”

Maritza Fernandez left a photo of her husband, Luis, who died in 2014 from health issues linked to his exposure to toxins in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

It also notes their “perseverance and courage” — and how it “renewed the spirit of a grieving city, gave hope to the nation and inspired the world.”

Standing near the memorial on Thursday, Joe McKay said he had only been a New York City firefighter for a few years when the terror attacks happened. But as he worked the pile, more experienced firefighters warned him to avoid the acrid smoke and fumes that looked foreign to them.

He retired in 2011 at his doctor’s urging because of respiratory troubles that were growing increasingly worse. He also has a neurological disorder that causes severe headaches.

Yet he has no regrets.

“I don’t know — it’s in our DNA,” Mr. McKay, 51, said. “We go,” he said, referring to firefighters who rush toward danger. “That’s it. You don’t think. You go.”

In recent years, the legacy of the attacks has been tangled in a kind of awkward adolescence. The initial horrors have long subsided, and the physical scars that once marred Lower Manhattan have healed. Still, there are many who continue wrestling with the toll of the attacks, and they are not yet ready for Sept. 11 to be regarded as history.


“For some, the end of the recovery was the beginning of an even more difficult journey of sickness and disease,” former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told a rapt crowd.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

“Like the heroes we lost on 9/11, their selfless acts provided light that helped guide us through our darkest hours and they allowed our city to rise again,” said former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, chairman of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. He attended the ceremony with other government officials and prominent advocates, including the comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, who is on the museum’s board of directors. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo did not attend.

“For some, the end of the recovery was the beginning of an even more difficult journey of sickness and disease,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

The glade now serves as a subtle — and yet in other ways glaring — signal of just how long a reach the attacks have had, still stirring ripples of anguish as rescue and recovery workers suffer and die from ailments that doctors have traced to ground zero.

The workers have been the subject of an enduring political fight for financial support. There has also been substantial, and at times bitter, disagreement over just how strong a role the poisonous cloud of dust and fumes breathed in by firefighters, police officers and aid workers has played in their health travails.


The glade sits atop the subterranean 9/11 museum, and had to be reinforced with high-density Styrofoam, concrete and steel rebar to support the monoliths’ enormous weight.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

Even so, rescue and recovery workers have confronted an alarming spread of maladies. Many have received diagnoses of cancer, as well as scarring of the heart and lungs. Researchers have discovered links to stomach problems, sleeping troubles and hearing loss.

The fallout has not been limited to New York City. In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of workers traveled to ground zero from Texas, California, Virginia, Georgia and elsewhere.

Two years ago, a heart-related episode caused a fire chief in Florida to crash an emergency vehicle while driving 65 miles per hour on a highway. His doctor said it was caused by scarring of his heart likely stemming from his two weeks at ground zero. The chief survived, yet he still cannot bring himself to return to New York.

Last year, in New York, firefighters filled Fifth Avenue for the funeral of Chief Ronald R. Spadafora, the 178th member of the Fire Department, and the highest ranking, to die of World Trade Center-related illnesses. (Another 343 members died in the Sept. 11 attacks.)

Chief Spadafora, who was 63 and had blood cancer, oversaw safety for a recovery operation that a federal labor official once described as “potentially the most dangerous workplace in the United States.”

As of April, more than 22,000 claims to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund had been deemed credible, most filed by rescue, recovery and cleanup workers, according to data published by the fund.

The memorial, which opened at the site of the attacks a decade later, replaced a knot of steel and debris with a placid plaza. It has drawn some 46 million visitors, officials said.

The footprints of the towers have been transformed with reflecting pools and waterfalls powerful enough to drown out much of the city’s din. Bronze parapets have been stencil cut with the names of the victims from New York, the Pentagon and United Air Flight 93, which crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa. It also includes the names of the six people killed in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.


Maureen Fritz held a portrait of her brother, William “Billy” Gormley, who died in 2017 from an illness related to his response to the World Trade Center on 9/11.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

The new 1 World Trade Center looms overhead, and it is surrounded by gleaming new buildings, a shopping center packed with luxury brands and the Oculus, the audaciously designed transit hub that resembles the spine of a hunched bird, breaching the earth.

The monoliths in the glade were shaped by artists in Vermont and brought by flatbed truck to the city. The plaza, which rests above the subterranean museum, had to be reinforced with high-density Styrofoam, concrete and steel rebar to support the monoliths’ enormous weight.

“What a beautiful place for our heroes,” said Caryn Pfiefer, whose husband, Raymond, served at ground zero and died from cancer in 2017.

The sun broke through the clouds by the end of the ceremony as relatives, firefighters and police officers strolled between the monoliths.

Left behind on the stones were single yellow roses, a bouquet of daisies and funeral prayer cards with photographs of men in Fire Department uniforms and death dates years after 2001. There was also a poem wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag, apparently placed there by someone who had volunteered near ground zero. Its title: “No Relief.”