New York's emergency services were among the first on the scene of the 9/11 disaster but put their personal safety in jeopardy. Those involved in the rescue and clean-up operation quickly became national heroes.
But now 85 per cent of them are suffering from lung diseases which they say were caused by the huge clouds of dust. Those people are now calling on the state for medical support.
So far the US government has refused to help.
John McNamara is the most recent ground zero first responder to die from cancer. He battled to save lives that day but lost his own battle aged just 44 – a victim of his own bravery.
His courage was commemorated at St. Patrick’s cathedral, where McNamara’s funeral took place.
Twin Towers hero (Photo by Mark M. Lawrence)
Today his son Jack McNamara is still too young to understand his father’s actions that day. All he knows is that dad was a firefighter.
“I and the other families of the victims are so devastated that so many of these valiant firefighters who struggled to find my son and to save others are now paying the price,” says Sally Reigenhardt whose son died in the 9/11 attacks.
City, state and federal officials have not acknowledged a direct link between the cancer cases and ground zero toxins. Congress has yet to approve 9/11 health legislation calling for federal financial coverage of health costs for rescue workers.
John McNamara spent about 500 hours at ground zero aiding in rescue and recovery. Nearly eight years later, the scene here is all about rebuilding. But as the hole in the ground grows smaller the list of 9/11 related deaths is growing longer and longer.
Retired police officer Mike Valentin has had four biopsies for a precancerous tumor in his throat and has to take 15 pills a day. He calls 9/11 America's Chernobyl.
“The people that will die from illnesses will surpass the number of people that were killed on 9/11. I am talking about thousands, tens of thousands of people that will come down with cancers,” forecasts 9/11 first responder Valentin.
Valentin says he spent four months digging through debris at ground zero, after US officials announced the air was safe.
Valentin, the father of three, says he spends $15,000 a year on medication the government won’t cover and that the US leaders have turned their backs on the heroes they promised never to forget.
“Our families are not looking to put Mercedes Benz on the front yard. We’re not looking to take European trips,” says Valentin, “We’re looking to take care of our families when we die.”
With the time he has left, Mike Valentin vows to continue fighting for the compensation he believes 9/11 first responders deserve.
Valentin founded a 9/11 police foundation to help retired first responders in need of medical assistance – among them Patrick Triola who spent months searching the ground zero and then became a victim of kidney cancer.
During those days, Stephen Grossman’s son Robert was also aiding in rescue and recovery. He was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2006, at just 39 years old. Today, he remains in a coma.