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John Feal

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Social studies teacher Rich Acritelli (far right) welcomes students and guests to Rocky Point’s annual 9/11 memorial ceremony. Photo from RPUFSD

Students, teachers and administrators filled the Rocky Point High School auditorium for its annual program commemorating the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. 

The event, spearheaded by social studies teacher Rich Acritelli, brought in members of the Rocky Point VFW and Suffolk County Police Department. Speakers this year included representatives from the FealGood Foundation, first responders and survivors of the attacks. 

All of the students in attendance were not even alive during the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Anthony Flammia, the director of community outreach for the FealGood Foundation, spoke about his experiences serving on the New York Police Department’s highway patrol on 9/11 as well as working with the organization that supports and advocates for the first responders when the towers fell. 

“In 2005, the foundation was founded by construction worker John Feal who because of his time working at Ground Zero caused him to lose part of his foot,” the Miller Place resident said. “He had to advocate for himself as no one in government believed that these illnesses were due to his work at Ground Zero.”

The foundation advocates for first responders rights and has assisted in the passage of 13 9/11-related health bills at both the state and federal level. It has also donated $6.5 million to both uniform and nonuniform first responders who are in need of financial help. 

He also spoke about the foundation working with Jon Stewart, comedian and former host of “The Daily Show” and how he walked the halls of Congress with them to advocate for first responders rights. 

To help give students an idea of what it was like 18 years ago from a student’s perspective, the district asked Lila Nordstrom, who was a student at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, speak about how she had witnessed the attacks from her classroom. 

“My teacher taught through the collapse of the first tower, he taught for a good hour as a crisis was happening outside our windows,” she said. “We didn’t know what else to do and when we finally evacuated, we were just told to run North.”

She also spoke about when she and her classmates returned to the school, cleanup at Ground Zero was in full swing. Many were unaware at the time that due to the close proximity to the cleanup the school was contaminated. 

In 2006, Nordstrom became a 9/11 activist. She has worked to bring awareness to the school children who were exposed to toxic fumes during the cleanup and has worked with the FealGood Foundation in advocating for 9/11 health bills. 

“It gave something positive to move forward out of that trauma,” she said.

At the conclusion of the program, Acritelli spoke on the importance of this event. 

“It is just very important, some of these students weren’t even born yet,” he said. “[Today] was very powerful, it is important that they know what emergency personnel and residents in this area did on that day.”

Mark Gajewski a union operating engineer worked six months straight on clearing Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks.

Out of the twisted wreckage of two collapsed New York City skyscrapers, Mark Gajewski helped erect one of the most significant 9/11 artifacts: the steel Ground Zero cross.

The symbol touched people beyond the many emergency responders who found it a source of comfort and divine inspiration. For Gajewski’s only daughter, Crystal, the 17-foot cross is one small part of her father’s legacy. As an operating engineer, he helped clear away the World Trade Center debris. He died 10 years later from a rare form of lung cancer at the age of 52.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it isn’t an artifact or special memento that makes a person a hero, but their innate intent to help others,” Crystal Gajewski said. “My father may not have received a medal and he will not appear in any textbooks, but to me and those that knew him best, he was one of the great unsung heroes.”

Gajewski rushed to the scene four hours after the towers fell, his daughter said, and was one of the first people to assess the situation.

“He worked six months straight without coming home at Ground Zero, nine months total,” she said.

At Ground Zero, Gajewski endured unthinkable trauma, both emotional and physical. He found human body parts in the rubble at the site, his daughter said, including the hands, bound at the wrist, of a flight attendant. And when he came down with strange ailments and coughing, his daughter said that doctors initially were perplexed. Because of his untimely death, the 9/11 cleanup worker never saw his son Sean graduate law school and become an attorney for the U.S. Coast Guard. He never got to meet his first grandchild, Mia.  

Father Brian Jordan, from St. Francis Assisi church in New York City wants people to know that Mark Gajewski represents the thousands of union construction workers who completed the remarkable task of demolishing and removing the fallen building from the site. 

“You hear about the dedication and the sacrifice of the fire fighters and police officers, but not the talented union construction workers: the operating engineers, the electricians, the welders, and others who performed an incredible task on time and under budget,” Jordan said. He also calls them unsung heroes.

Mark Gajewski’s name and the names of more than 1,200 other responders are engraved on a shiny, black granite wall in the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park on Smithtown Boulevard in Nesconset. This year, 206 more responders’ names were inscribed. Last year 163 names were added. So, the effects of 9/11 are still mounting. All of them, uniformed and nonuniformed have died of a 9/11-related illness. As the list grows, so does the crowd that attends the annual 9/11 Responders Remembered tribute. More than 500 people gathered on Sept. 14 for this year’s event.

Crystal Gajewski points out her father’s name at the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park.

Nesconset resident John Feal, a 9/11 responder, served as demolition supervisor for the cleanup and had part of his foot amputated after a steel beam fell on it. The tireless advocate built the park with the help of others. He has said that he has been to more than 180 funerals for responders and wants to ensure that all the people who fell ill and lost their lives as a consequence of responding to the disaster are remembered for their sacrifices. “No Responder Left Behind” is his motto. The Nesconset park, he said, is unique because it’s inclusive. The names of responders who died are not excluded because of where they lived or what job title they held, or whether or not they wore uniforms. 

So, as the tragedy continues to take its toll, Crystal Gajewski and her family and the many other volunteers remain dedicated to preserving the honor and dignity of her father and all the other people who ultimately sacrificed their lives as a result of cleaning up the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. She serves as volunteer vice president of the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park with John Feal and has created a separate foundation Ski’s Open Heart in her father’s honor.

Crystal said she hopes that her father’s story and the foundation she created for him inspires others to look within themselves and find time and the desire to help others.

Feature Photo by Crystal Gajewski

  The Ground Zero Cross plaque welded by Gajewski.
The Ground Zero Cross Photos by Timothy M. Moore.

New one-stop clinic opens in Commack to provide care for 9/11 first responders

First responder John Feal gets a checkup at the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program center, which opened a new facility in Commack, Nov. 28. Photo from Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program website

Accessing medical treatment on Long Island has become easier for 9/11 first responders.

Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program celebrated the official opening of its new one-stop health clinic in Commack Nov. 28. The program relocated from Islandia to the Stony Brook Medicine Advanced Specialty Care building, located at 500 Commack Road. The move allowed the program to expand from a monitoring facility into a 20,000-square-foot, integrative clinic where World Trade Center responders can receive more comprehensive medical treatment under one roof.

Dr. Benjamin Luft, program director and principal investigator, said the clinic is dedicated to caring for approximately 10,000 patients suffering from illnesses after volunteering at Ground Zero after 9/11. He said the responders suffer from a wide variety of conditions and the new location will provide the medical staff more resources. Among the new services available will be blood testing and imaging, which weren’t available in Islandia and caused patients to have to go elsewhere.

“This is ideal for the World Trade responder patient population, and the reason why is these patients who have been so severely affected by the World Trade Center disaster have a compendium of various abnormalities and disorders which are directly related to 9/11,” Luft said. “These included diseases ranging from psychiatry diseases to respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, to cancer.”

“The program is now a state-of-the-art facility that not only monitors you, but treats you and gives you top-notch medical care all in one facility.”

— John Feal

The doctor said the program has a research team dedicated to studying neurocognitive problems, autoimmune issues and cancer-related illness. The new Commack location has an in-house laboratory that will make accessing patients’ samples and processing them easier. He said many of the illnesses related to the disaster were not initially recognized, and the number of patients has grown approximately 8 to 10 percent each year since the monitoring clinic first opened on the Stony Brook University campus shortly after 9/11.

The day of the Commack grand opening, the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program honored John Feal, a first responder and founder of the Fealgood Foundation. A Nesconset resident and Commack native, he said having the clinic where he grew up is special to him. Feal and members of his organization worked tirelessly to get the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act passed in Dec. 2010 and again in 2015. The act enables first responders, volunteers and survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks to receive health monitoring and financial aid.

Luft said at first the program treated many patients who lacked medical insurance coverage. “So when they got sick, they didn’t have health insurance or have someone to take care of their acute problems,” he said. “We established our clinic to do that at no additional costs to the patients.”

Feal, who was a patient at the Islandia clinic and recently had his physical in Commack, said he was impressed with the new location.

“The program is now a state-of-the-art facility that not only monitors you, but treats you and gives you top-notch medical care all in one facility,” Feal said.

He said having a one-stop clinic is important to many, especially for those who have become too frail to travel. Aging is an issue as many are now in their mid-50s or older.

“As we get further away from 9/11, the illnesses are getting worse,” Feal said. “One, because of age and, two, because with these illnesses, some latency periods and manifestations in the body take this long.”

The first responder said it was humbling to be honored for his work Nov. 28.

“We’re talking about human life, and I’m never going to apologize for anything I ever said or did, because at the end of the day I only care about helping those who are sick from 9/11,” Feal said. “And so many people are getting sick. It’s not ending anytime soon.”

The first few cherry blossom trees were donated from the FealGood Foundation and the 9/11 Responders Remembered Memorial Park. Members of both groups and the historical society smile. Photo from Smithtown Historical Society

By Kyle Barr

The Smithtown Historical Society is looking to create memories that will last a tree’s lifetime with their most recent project.

The Walk Under the Trees Project intends to recreate the feel of the famous Washington D.C. cherry blossom pathway,  encourage the planting of trees and help create a beautiful destination for Long Islanders to visit.

Historical society spokeswoman Priya Kapoor was the driving force behind the project.

“The idea started in the beginning of the year, and we started approaching people back in June,” she said in a phone interview. “We want to make the grounds more welcoming and make it more of a community centered place so that people can walk there, they can bring their kids and their dogs.”

Executive director Marianne Howard said she hopes this project stops Smithtown residents in their tracks.

“We’re always seeking an opportunity to beautify our grounds,” Howard said. “People drive past us and they don’t know we’re here, and this will help people to stop and come look at something beautiful.”

On July 19 the historical society commemorated its first set of trees with John Feal of the FealGood Foundation, and Martin Aponte, president of 9/11 Responders Remembered Memorial Park. The FealGood Foundation, an organization that seeks to  improve the lives of 9/11 first responders,  donated five trees with the memorial park donating one. The plan is for the trees to line  the dirt road to the historical society’s main set of buildings.

Feal is a frequent D.C. visitor himself and is very familiar with the cherry blossom paths there.

“You think of beautiful trees, you think of cherry blossoms,” Feal said in a phone interview. “Every year I go to Washington — only because I have to — to try and get legislation passed, but I sometimes get to see the cherry blossoms.”

Now Feal will not have to drive as far to see those special trees.

Aponte said that for those who work with 9/11 first responders, trees have a big significance for those who worked at Ground Zero.

“After those buildings came down there was one particular tree that stood amongst all the wreckage and debris that was falling,” Aponte said in a phone interview. “They dug it out and got seedlings and saplings and made more trees from that particular survivor tree. We surrounded our park with these survivor trees and they’re growing today. They symbolize that we as Americans are survivors regardless of what happened and the aftermath of it.”

Feal said his organization and the historical society have a good working relationship, and that the history of 9/11 first responders and the town are intertwined.

“9/11 is part of the history of Smithtown,” Feal said. “The memorial park tells the story of the history of 9/11 and the courage and the honor and the sacrifice of the men and women who worked at ground zero, and many of them are from Smithtown.”

The Smithtown Historical Society is accepting donations sponsoring new trees, flower beds and even small donations for bricks in a planned walkway. If you are interested in sponsoring a tree, or for information, contact the historical society offices at 631-265-6768.

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Jon Stewart, Raymond Pfeifer and John Feal talk after the ceremony honoring those lost on and after Sept. 11, 2001. Photo from John Feal

To the wall, the names were new, but to those at 9/11 Responders Remembered Park, they brought with them years of courage and heroism. All eyes were on the park on Saturday as 61 more names were etched into its wall of heroes, honoring those who paid the ultimate price for their efforts in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The event was packed with first responders, their families, lawmakers and advocates, including advocate and first responder John Feal of Nesconset’s FealGood Foundation and comedian Jon Stewart.

“This park was built … to serve the 9/11 community with grace, dignity and humility,” Feal said to the crowd before the new names were read aloud. “I hope this park will help tell the stories of our nation’s greatest resources: its citizens, both uniformed and nonuniformed.”

Feal and several members of what they called the 9/11 community have descended upon the Nesconset park every year since it was established in 2009 to add names to the wall of heroes, paying tribute to those who have died on or after that horrific day. Martin Aponte, president of the North Shore park, reminded the crowd that they were not there to mourn, but to reflect, remember and recognize the stories behind the names on the wall behind him.

Jon Stewart and John Feal observe the wall of heroes at the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park. Photo from John Feal
Jon Stewart and John Feal observe the wall of heroes at the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park. Photo from John Feal

“To maintain this park is the least we can do for those who have served our nation with distinguished honor, courage and sacrifice,” he said. “We are here only to serve a fragile fraternity of heroes who come here to rest and join their brothers and sisters. Their story is told through this park.”

Feal, along with Stewart and New York City firefighter Raymond Pfeifer, used the ceremony as a means to celebrate a recent legislative victory they helped accomplish nationwide after years of pushing Congress to renew the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act, which supports first responders whose illnesses are linked to their efforts on 9/11. For his tireless advocacy on the subject, Pfeifer was awarded an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol along with a golden firefighter’s axe on a plaque.

Pfeifer, who spent eight months on top of the debris pile of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, has stage-four cancer and spoke from a wheelchair about the collaborative efforts it took to overcome that day.

“Today is a good day. It’s sad, but nobody gets out alive. Anytime you can tell a story about [first responders] that’s a good thing,” he said.

With a heavy-hearted expression on his face, Stewart read each of the names that were added to the wall that day in somber tone. The tolling of a bell followed each name. After his remarks, the comedian and former host of “The Daily Show” remarked on his time on the front lines of advocating for first responders’ benefits. He spoke to inspire those in attendance against the fear of terrorism, saying “we win” because of America’s unending resource of courage.

“I’m always humbled when I’m in the company of Ray and John, and all the other responders,” he said. “I can never in my life repay the debt that you all gave to not just me, but to the city and to the country. We owe you, and we will continue to owe you forever.”

North Shore natives travel to Washington with hopes of swaying lawmakers to renew health care benefits

John Feal speaks at the September 11 memorial ceremony in Commack last week. Photo by Brenda Lentsch

The 9/11 first responders who have fought for years to get health care support are heading back to Washington, D.C., in hopes of ushering in the renewal of the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act. And for one Nesconset resident, change cannot come soon enough.

Parts of the bill will expire next month, and other parts in October 2016.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act would extend the programs of the original Zadroga act indefinitely. It was introduced to Congress in April and currently has 150 bipartisan co-sponsors.

“When this bill expires, our illnesses do not expire,” said John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, in a phone interview. Feal, of Nesconset, has been walking the halls of Congress for the past eight years to help get this bill passed.

He is also a 9/11 first responder who worked on the reconstruction at Ground Zero, and lost half of his foot in the process. He suffered from gangrene, but he says his injuries “pale in comparison to other first responders.”

President Barack Obama signed the current Zadroga act into law in 2011 and established the World Trade Center Health Program, which will expire in October if not renewed.

The WTC program ensured that those whose health was affected by 9/11 would receive monitoring and treatment services for their health-related problems. It consists of a responder program for rescue and recovery workers and New York City firefighters, and a survivor program for those who lived, worked or went to school in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Zadroga act also reopened the September 11th Victims Compensation Act, which allows for anyone affected to file claims for economic losses due to physical harm or death caused by 9/11. That will expire in October of next year.

Feal said he was asked by television personality Jon Stewart to come on “The Daily Show” in December 2010, but the Nesconset native said he did not want to leave the real legislative fight in D.C. Instead, he helped get four 9/11 responders to the Dec. 16, 2010, episode, who helped shed light on the ongoing battle these responders were dealing with in Congress.

“He was definitely one of the reasons the bill got passed,” Feal said of Stewart. Stewart accompanied Feal and many other first responders when they traveled to Washington, D.C, on Wednesday, Sept. 16, and took part in a mini rally.

The bill did not pass the first time it was presented to Congress back in 2006. A new version was drafted in 2010 and passed in the House of Representatives, but was having trouble getting through the Senate due to a Republican filibuster. The bill received final congressional approval on Dec. 22, 2010, and was enacted by the president on Jan. 2, 2011.

“As we get older these illnesses will become debilitating,” Feal said. “Not extending this bill is criminal. People will die without it. It’s a life-saving piece of legislation.”

Jennifer McNamara, a Blue Point resident and president of The Johnny Mac Foundation, is also actively involved in the fight to keep responders health costs covered. Her late husband, John McNamara, passed away in 2009 from stage IV colon cancer.

He was a New York City Firefighter and worked more than 500 hours at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11. He worked with responders to get support for the Zadroga bill before he died.

“I made him a promise to continue to lend support to get this legislation passed,” Jennifer McNamara said in a phone interview. When her husband passed away, she said there weren’t as many responders getting sick as there are now. “People are dying more quickly, and more are getting diagnosed with cancers and other illnesses.”

The two big issues that McNamara said she feels need to continue to be addressed are monitoring these diseases and coverage of costs once someone is diagnosed. McNamara said she believes that if there were better monitoring programs earlier on, her husband could’ve been diagnosed before his cancer was stage IV, and he could’ve had a better chance.

“These people did tremendous things for their country,” McNamara said. “They shouldn’t have to guess about whether they are going to be taken care of.”

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The latest 100 names are read off before being unveiled as part of Nesconset’s own memorial wall in honor of those lost after lending helping hands in the aftermath of September 11 in 2001. Photo by Jenni Culkin

By Jenni Culkin

There was not a dry eye in the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park as the greater North Shore community came together to commemorate the lives of first responders who died from September 11-related illnesses.

The Nesconset park, at the intersection of Smithtown Boulevard and Gibbs Pond Road, was dedicated to victims of the horrendous terrorist attack and was crowded with hundreds of residents and families as 100 new names were added to its memorial wall on May 16.

“They are the reason we get out of bed,” said John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, who acted as the master of ceremonies. “Thank you for allowing us to serve you.”

The wall already had more than 500 names, but those who spoke at the somber ceremony did so with the same sort of hurt felt when the attack first occurred in 2001.

“Like everyone here today, I pale in comparison to those who are going on the wall,” Martin Aponte, president of the park, said during the ceremony with a voice full of emotion.

The service featured various patriotic musical performances and words from elected officials.

“We thank you, from the bottom of our hearts,” said Suffolk County Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), “I commit to you that I will always stand watch over this park.”

Elected officials from neighboring towns joined the Nesconset community in honoring the lives of the 9/11 responders.

“We are truly a country of greatness and heroes,” said Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore).

Toward the end of the ceremony, the sons of fallen responders read the names that were going to be etched into the memorial wall. Each name was followed by a solemn bell toll.

Shortly after the names were all read, the sun started to show itself above the memorial park. Feal and those who played active roles in leading the ceremony made it very clear during and after the ceremony that they were grateful for the amount of people attending the ceremony despite the rainy weather.

“It’s humbling to see this many people come out,” Feal said. “For people to withstand Mother Nature truly showed the American spirit.”

Aponte said there are trees among the park’s foliage that are direct descendants of a tree that survived the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. One of these trees was given to the Hauppauge Fire Department and another was also given to the Nesconset Fire Department as tokens of appreciation for each department’s contribution to the park.

A memorial ceremony is usually held, and is expected to continue to be held, every May during Memorial Day week and every September during the anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

The park has plans to eventually recognize and honor the service dogs that have passed away due to 9/11-related illnesses, Aponte said. There are also plans to place signs on the Long Island Expressway that lead travelers to the park from nearby exits but there are no definite dates at this time.

The park’s upkeep and development is dependent upon donations that can be made on the park’s website, which is at respondersremembered.com. The Greater Smithtown Chamber of Commerce is also going to be hosting a golf outing to benefit the park in early August.

“We built this park so history does not get distorted,” Aponte said.