Officials recently announced that a permanent dedication to 9/11 Rescue and Recovery workers is being planned and developed at the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan. In a recent press release, 9/11 Memorial and Museum board members, including former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Comedian Jon Stewart, announced that there will be an area dedicated to the thousands of men and women who went to Ground Zero initially for rescue and recovery and then removal of the tons of debris so that the site could eventually be rebuilt. Reuters News reported that in the aftermath of the attacks, more than 91,000 people have suffered illnesses and more than 400 have died. Included in this tragic statistic is Ray Pfeifer who passed away on May 28 after an eight-year battle with 9/11-related cancer that attacked his kidneys, legs, and brain.
Ray Pfeifer was not a professional athlete who helped his team win a World Series or Super Bowl. He was not a celebrity who won numerous awards for his acting ability. He didn’t make billions as an inventor of some high tech computer or communications firm. Yet, he was a giant. He was a hero. That term is thrown around so often that we sometimes forget what the word actually means. According to Miriam Webster, a hero is “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities and one who shows great courage.”
Ray Pfiefer served as a firefighter for the City of New York for 27 years. It was during his day off that he responded to the terrorist attack on the United States at the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. He, along with thousands of others, worked for months on the “pile,” searching for survivors. When it became obvious there was no one to find alive, he continued to search for the remains of those who never made it to safety. He was initially diagnosed with stage 4 cancer six years after his exposure to the toxins on the pile but continued to work as a firefighter until 2014 when he became wheelchair bound as a result of losing his leg to the cancer that would eventually kill him. As the daughter of a retired firefighter and the sister of two firefighters who also worked on the “pile,” his death hits close to home.
Ray could have spent the last three years of his life after retiring solely on the fight of his life to beat the cancer that was destroying his body – but he did not. Instead, he became a tireless advocate of the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, commonly known as the Zadroga Bill, which provides health care monitoring and treatment to first responders and was set to expire in 2015. He was a familiar sight in Washington on his electronic wheelchair as he lobbied Congress to pass the bill that would help first responders. He used his kindness and his humanity to shame those who opposed the bill and was instrumental in getting Congress to pass federal legislation that extended medical treatment for another 75 years for those sickened after 9/11. It was during these lobby days in Washington that he met and befriended comedian Jon Stewart who was one of those who spoke at Ray’s funeral mass.
Ray Pfeifer has been lauded in life, and in death, by many politicians, including U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who awarded him the key to the City in 2016, and thousands of others who owe him a debt of gratitude that this nation can never repay. His passing is tragic, causing unimaginable pain to those who knew and loved him, but his legacy will remain. He was a true American hero. May he rest in peace.
Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.
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