Friday marks 19 years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Many brave souls who responded to that tragic day are facing new challenges from the aftermath amid the coronavirus pandemic.
John Feal is an Army veteran. He was a supervisor at Ground Zero in New York City. Falling debris took his leg - and almost his life.
Now Feal is a 9/11 first responders advocate. He testified to Congress alongside Jon Stewart in favor of the September 11th Victims Compensation fund.
Over the past few months, he has seen first-hand COVID-19’s impact on the heroes who survived that day, but not the virus.
Feal himself was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March.
“Other than being in the hospital for 11 weeks after 9/11, when I got hurt, and having this illness - those are the only two times I can ever remember being afraid in my life,” Feal said. “The ability not to breathe is a scary, scary feeling. Not knowing was the biggest fear. I'm not afraid of dying. I just didn't want to die like that.”
Feal pulled through. He’s donated plasma eight times, as well as $100,000 in personal protective equipment, or PPE, and food to hospitals, nursing homes and emergency departments.
He also continued his work as an advocate for fellow 9/11 first responders who suffered subsequent health conditions. The pandemic is bringing that issue into even sharper focus.
“I told the 9/11 community to heed the advice of the experts, to take this illness serious because we're all compromised. Our immune systems are compromised from the aftermath and the toxins of 9/11,” Feal described. “Now everybody’s looking over their shoulder saying, ‘When am I going to get COVID 19? Am I going to get it if I survive it?' I know I’m compromised.’”
Feal said he knows of at least 50 first responders of 9/11 who have since died from COVID-19.
“Part of me dies with them," Feal said. "Anybody who died before March, as sad as it is, they had a funeral. Anybody who died after March, they didn't even have the proper funeral for their loved ones. Not only is that sad, that is, that's - that makes my soul cry. That makes my heart bleed, that these families didn't get their loved ones the proper sendoff."
On Saturday, Feal will lead a ceremony at the 9/11 Responders Remembrance Park. A plaque will be added for the heroes stolen by this virus.
“We’re going to honor them, and we're going to read their names, followed by the ringing of the bell. And then we're going to have a flyover for them,” Feal listed.
Through the heartbreak of that day, 19 years ago, Americans learned to come together, to love, and to remember.
“I'm a strong believer that good always triumphs over evil. And I'm a strong believer that charity always triumphs over anger,” Feal said.