9/11 first responders are battling serious illnesses, and my documentary follows their fight for health care justice
It has been 17 years since the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11th, 2001.
Becoming a documentary filmmaker was never something I envisioned for myself. I’ve always been a storyteller, writing short films, plays, and articles — but never a documentarian. Sometimes, though, a door opens up, and you hear a story that needs to be told. That’s how, in 2015, I found myself messaging my friend, Rob, who is a documentary producer, and asking him if we could work with John Feal. That’s how, now, I find myself co-producing No Responders Left Behind, a documentary feature film about the very serious illnesses faced by 9/11 first responders and the lack of government support they’ve received.
My introduction to John Feal, a 9/11 first responder, was unexpected. It happened on Twitter in December 2015.
I was watching The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and Jon Stewart had returned to the show so he could update viewers on a dire situation for 9/11 first responders. The Zadroga Act — named after James Zadroga, one of the earliest responders to pass away from a 9/11-related illness — was days away from expiring. The act provides financial assistance and health care treatment to the heroes of 9/11, many of whom are being diagnosed with cancer and other diseases at an alarming rate.
Jon Stewart pleaded with viewers to bombard the U.S. Congress with Tweets using #WorstResponders, pressuring congresspeople to renew the act. I watched that show and cried, devastated by the fact that renewing the Zadroga Act was even a struggle. Though I am in Canada, I too Tweeted my support, and a friend of John Feal’s connected with me. I messaged him, asking how I could help. That’s when I was told to “talk to John Feal,” and we were introduced via email the next day. John had helped pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Bill in 2010, and helped the bill get that re-authorization in 2015.
I realized that if I didn’t know who this man was, it was likely that other people didn’t know who he was either. And his story is one that you need to know.
On September 11th, 2001, John Feal’s workday began at 4 a.m.
He woke up, went to his construction job to get his truck and his crew, and they got to work in Nanuet, New York, about 30 minutes north of New York City. That’s where John was when the first plane crashed into the first tower.
He kept working.
After the second plane crashed into the second tower, he sent 200 people home and left the construction site. A Mayday call had gone out, so John gathered his belongings and headed down to what would become Ground Zero.
That scene of devastation became home base; it’s where these men and women worked, ate, and slept.
John had military experience, and his construction experience allowed him to help move and clear debris — which he did, day and night, until September 17th. He had about a half hour left in his shift that day, when 8,000 lbs of steel fell towards John and took off a portion of his left foot.
He contorted his body in a way so that the foot was all that got hit; if he hadn’t thought so quickly, he may not have survived. John had two emergency surgeries that night and went into septic shock. He was 34 years old. Talking to John today, he can still smell the stench from that massive pile of debris left by the Twin Towers. All these years later, he can still smell the toxic soup they were unknowingly breathing in.
When John was finally able to leave the hospital, he tried to get the compensation he was owed — and that’s when a Pandora’s Box of problems opened up.
He soon learned that getting the workman’s comp he was rightly owed was next to impossible.
But I’ve come to know that John Feal is a fighter who needs to see a wrong made right. John fought; he went to therapy, he tried to sort his finances out on his own, and his fellow Ground Zero volunteers started to talk. John was getting answers — he was speaking out and officials were listening. These other men and women were being diagnosed with cancers and other illnesses, and they asked John to help them get their own answers. They suggested he start a foundation, and that’s how the FealGood Foundation was born.
Strangers were being sent to him en masse; the push to get their government to listen to them — to help them get treatment and survive financially — was growing.
John was there, organizing trips to Washington to demand government support for Ground Zero volunteers’ 9/11-related cancers and ailments. He prepared files so responders knew which delegates and representatives they were meeting on Capitol Hill. He helped them highlight important facts to discuss with politicians.
This tough talking, abrasive, rough around the edges guy from Long Island became a voice for his fellow first responders — although, you should never refer to John himself as a “First Responder.” He will counter by telling you that he simply responded to 9/11.
In the years since 9/11, John has helped pass numerous bills in Congress to help the heroes of 9/11 facing serious health issues.
Sometimes, it seems like he knows more about the law than any politician. He also purchases birthday gifts and Thanksgiving dinners for fellow Ground Zero volunteers because, after medical bills, they can no longer afford to take care of their own families. He travels the country to educate fellow 9/11 responders about the health care they are eligible for.
John even created a park near his home in Nesconset, New York to honor his fallen 9/11 brothers and sisters. The 9/11 Responders Remembered Park is the only one of its kind, with a wall where you will find the names of those who have passed from 9/11-related illnesses. It’s not a large park in size, but it is absolutely massive in heart. Each September, names are read at the park in a somber ceremony to honor those we must never forget — because these heroes are being forgotten, and that simply cannot happen.
The attacks occurred almost two decades ago, but for thousands of men and women, 9/11 is a daily event. Our first responders were there for us when we needed them — we must be there for them after the crisis is over. We must see what kind of help they need.
When John told me his story, I knew the world had to hear him tell it, too. I didn’t know exactly how I would help make that happen, but I trusted my intuition. I asked John if I could come down with a camera, and he agreed. Suddenly, I was a documentary filmmaker.
No Responders Left Behind, produced by me, my friend Rob, and his producing partner Kristine, documents John’s life as a 9/11 responder and advocate. Jon Stewart even became involved in my film, which is mind blowing and a complete circle, given that this project was inspired by his 9/11 advocacy.
The film explores the 9/11 community John Feal has woven together by his speaking out and honoring those who have passed. It’s an example of how ordinary people are capable of the most extraordinary things. In the film, we get to know this unassuming New Yorker, and watch him work the phones and answer emails from responders in need of assistance, 24/7. We even followed John to Arlington National Cemetery as he helped his dear friend (and first responder with the New York City Fire Department), Ray Pfeifer, cross an item off his bucket list before he passed away.
On September 11th, I was in Canada. When I think about how I am now connected to this astounding group of men and women, I feel so incredibly grateful — but so incredibly heartbroken to know they are very sick. If No Responders Left Behind inspires just one more person to take action, I will be endlessly proud — because the world needs more people like John Feal, one of the greatest men I know. In times of crisis, humans need to come together, to be supportive of those who are falling through the cracks. And that’s what John Feal has done.