Conflicts & War

Lives of people at Ground Zero changed forever by 9/11

By Nora Quintanilla

New York, Sep 8 (EFE).- The events of 20 years ago in New York City, when a pair of hijacked passenger planes were crashed into the World Trade Center, marked a before and after for thousands of people in that metropolis, particularly those who were at Ground Zero when the terrorist attacks occurred.

Among those living in the city were three individuals who were deeply and personally affected by that infamous day and its aftermath and have turned to activism in their pursuit of a better world.

Twelve hours after the Twin Towers collapsed, John Feal arrived in Manhattan’s financial district and got to work as a demolition supervisor at Ground Zero.

After five and a half days of tireless effort, he was seriously injured and hospitalized for 11 weeks when a nearly four-ton, falling metal beam landed on one of his feet.

“The non-uniform worker – the union member, the tradesman, the electrician, the plumber – we outnumbered the police and firefighters five to one,” Feal said. “They would still be cleaning up Ground Zero today if it wasn’t for those men and women who came in there, everyday citizens, and put their own health aside. And I just happened to be one of them.”

He spoke to Efe from his office at the Long Island-based FealGood Foundation, whose work includes providing support to 9/11 emergency personnel now suffering from health problems and which has assisted in the passage of 13 bills in the United States Congress, New York state, New Jersey and Michigan.

“I’ll never forget the smell. The smell will haunt me the rest of my life, and that’s probably why I don’t get a lot of sleep. But I choose to remember the good, the empathy, the humanity,” Feal said.

“We put aside our titles, and we put aside our ideologies, our political affiliations and our agendas and our skin color and our religions. And we became human beings again.”

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attacks, he said people in America need to rediscover that same ability to connect with others.

“Even if it’s for a brief moment in history, I pray that on this 20-year remembrance that we put aside our differences, our ideologies. Just remember those that we lost, that horrific debt … And remember those that we continue to lose from their heroic actions.”

Luz Garate was working at the time as an office cleaner at 5 World Trade Center, but on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, an election day in the city, she was volunteering for her union a few blocks north in the Tribeca neighborhood.

She said she still vividly recalls seeing people walking with their faces covered in ash and grime as ambulance sirens wailed in Lower Manhattan.

“I felt powerless at that moment. I couldn’t do anything … And I thought of the people who were inside, co-workers, those who were working that day … I worked for 13 years in those buildings,” Garate said.

Her union – Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ – turned its offices into a crisis center for weeks and devoted itself to locating and assisting its members, 24 of whom died and thousands of whom were left unemployed as a result of the terrorist attacks.

Garate, now a SEIU 32BJ district leader in New Jersey, said the experience of 9/11 changed her life completely, especially as relates to “helping one’s neighbor,” not only in terms of assisting her fellow union members but also seeking economic and racial justice.

Lila Nordstrom was a student at Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan on the day of the attacks. She felt the ground tremble and a powerful explosion, looked through the window and saw a fireball near the top of the World Trade Center.

She said she and her classmates were sent back to school just a few weeks later due to a “political decision” that put her health and that of her peers at risk.

Nordstrom later became an activist and joined with a friend who was diagnosed with lymphoma after the attacks in co-founding StuyHeath, an advocacy group representing young adults who were adversely affected by the events of 9/11 and the resulting clean-up.

Their efforts are centered on ensuring that former students in Lower Manhattan who were poisoned by toxic debris, dust and smoke are covered under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (Zadroga Act), a law to provide medical monitoring and aid to the first responders, volunteers and survivors of the attacks.

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