For Sal Turturici, the December 2015 passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act could not have come at a better time.
Or a worse one.
The former FDNY first responder, who spent seven months ferrying body parts from the toxic environs of Ground Zero to the medical examiner’s office, was feeling fine when he climbed into bed on Oct. 3, 2015.
The next morning, the 51-year-old EMT was rushed to a Staten Island hospital with stomach pains that felt more like death throes.
The diagnosis: A form of brain cancer improbably found in Turturici’s colon, bowel and ilium. The prognosis: Terminal. The impact: Incalculable.
The father of a 6-year-old girl and twin 4-year-old boys suddenly faced his own mortality. His wife Wendi envisioned a new world as a widow and single parent.
“Sal’s last time in the hospital before this was the day he was born,” said Wendi, a fellow EMT. “On Oct. 3, my life was fantastic. And then the World Trade Center came into my home.
“The events of that day are inside my house, and we have to live with it every day.” Just days before Christmas, one thing made the dark future somewhat brighter. The Zadroga Act, after a bitter battle in Congress, was extended to provide a lifetime of health benefits for the surviving heroes of 9/11 — including Sal Turturici.
“Thank God for Zadroga,” said Wendi Turturici. “It’s a life-changer for me and our three children. It means the difference between us being homeless or not.”
The Staten Island family is not alone in facing the crisis of deadly, time-released 9/11 health woes.
As the memory of the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks becomes more distant, its toxic legacy expands — with the post-9/11 death toll likely to exceed the 2,753 people killed that September morning.
The names of 19 more NYPD officers were chiseled into the stone of the New York state Police Officers’ Memorial in Albany this past May. More city cops have now died post-9/11 from WTC illnesses than the 23 killed back in 2001.
The FDNY added 17 new firefighters to its grim 9/11 roll call last week, bringing its death toll to 144 with 9/11-related ailments. “Sadly, that number will grow,” declared FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro at a ceremony honoring the dead. “We can make believe this is the last time we gather, but we know it’s not true.
“Next year and years to follow, we will add names to this wall.”
The 9/11 Responders Remembered Park in Nesconset, L.I., will honor 98 new inductees this coming Saturday — bringing its count of Ground Zero’s dead workers to 696.
WTC first responder John Feal, head of the FealGood Foundation, predicts the number of those buried by World Trade Center-related illnesses will surpass the number killed in the Twin Towers by 2020.
“No one is talking about the next wave of illnesses — blood, the organs that filtered out the toxins, the liver and kidneys,” said Feal, who lost half his left foot in a Ground Zero accident six days after the attack.
“And asbestos-related illnesses are coming in the next two, three, four, five years. I don’t think there’s any doctor or scientist who’s going to dispute the amount of asbestos at Ground Zero.” More cancer patients are expected: Studies earlier in the decade indicated cancer among 9/11 first responders was 15% higher than in the general population.
And there’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), developed by one in five first responders — and now considered a stepping stone to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
In a double dose of bad medical news, the cognitive impairment “may compound the course of PTSD and depression (and) .... result in PTSD symptom severity,” according to an August report from Stony Brook University researchers.
The average age of the first responders working in the toxic Trade Center rubble was 39 — meaning most are now in their 50s, headed into their golden years with debilitating illnesses already in place.
“At this point, there are 33,000-plus with more than one illness, and 5,400-plus with 9/11-certified cancer,” Feal said. “The numbers are probably higher if you bring in people treated by private doctors.”
The health issues, while concentrated locally, are felt across all 50 states. Only two of the nation’s 435 Congressional districts — one in Alaska, the other in California — went unrepresented among the Ground Zero workers. Roughly 20,000 non-New Yorkers are enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program, along with another 54,000 from the tri-state area.
The heroic first responders who descended on Ground Zero in a desperate hunt for survivors walked into a chemical nightmare.
Toxic dust floated in the air, coating everything in sight. Lethal fumes wafted from the burning fires where the buildings once rose into the skyline.
The two hijacked planes, after hitting the towers, dumped 24,000 gallons of flammable jet fuel. The resulting blaze torched 230,000 gallons of transformer, diesel and heating oils in the rubble of the 110-story towers.
Another 100,000 tons of debris also went up in flames, with workers exposed to asbestos, carbon monoxide, crystalline silica and an assortment of other nasty agents.
Like so many others, Firefighter Ray Pfeifer rushed to Ground Zero on Sept. 11 and stayed. He spent eight months inhaling the vile air, and was diagnosed with cancer six years later. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m tortured every day by a terrorist,” said Pfeifer, 57, whose son Terence later followed him into the FDNY.
“Any one of those chemicals could give you cancer,” he continued. “You mix it together, and then what have you got? I still don’t think people understand it, and they never will.”
The medical aid bill’s namesake, NYPD Detective Jimmy Zadroga, discovered within a month of 9/11 that catching his breath was suddenly a chore.
He, like many others, worked on the festering site with no more protection than a thin, paper mask over his face.
By Sept. 11, 2002, the one-time bodybuilder was plagued by a constant cough and a sore throat. His eyesight was failing. By Sept. 11, 2003, Zadroga was attached to an oxygen tank.
On Jan. 5, 2006, the 34-year-old cop was dead — his name soon to become a rallying cry for the first responders crippled and killed by their time on “The Pile.” Zadroga had fiberglass in his lungs, and traces of mercury on his brain. He became the first Ground Zero worker whose death was directly linked to his time on the burning 16-acre swath.
The Daily News became a relentless supporter of the Zadroga legislation going back to 2010, when the initial bill passed.
The News was at the forefront again last year, when the original bill was due to expire. The paper’s efforts helped insure that Congress provided health coverage for Ground Zero victims through 2090.
Sen. Kristin Gillibrand and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, two of the biggest Zadroga boosters in Congress, both credited The News for its non-stop push in support of the 9/11 first responders.
Pfeifer recalls traveling to Washington with comedian Jon Stewart, a Jersey guy and outspoken proponent of the Zadroga Act. The firefighter played good cop to funnyman Stewart’s bad cop as they buttonholed politicians for support.
“The walking dead walking the halls of Congress,” recalled Pfiefer. “Begging. I felt like I was begging. We had to fight for it. But it was a fight which should have never had to be.” Pfiefer had a personal interest in the Zadroga bill — his own massive medical bills.
“I’m spending money left and right,” he said. “When the doctor says you need an MRI, the city insurance pays for one. My doctor said I needed 12 that first year. And each one is $3,000.
“And that doesn’t include the drugs. Oral chemotherapy is $10,000 a month. Cancer is very expensive in this country.”
Pfeifer just finished his latest hospital stay a couple of weeks back. He plans to swap his wheelchair for a motorcycle and a 9/11 run with Gov. Cuomo and other FDNY retirees on the 15th anniversary.
Despite his illness, Pfiefer has no regrets and speaks with deep feeling about his days inhaling the poisoned air that will one day kill him.
“On ‘The Pile,’ you worked together with everybody — didn’t matter who,” he said. “Nobody cared, because everybody was there for a cause, to try and save lives. And that feeling still continues, with the friends I met on ‘The Pile’ working all those months. “We went through things that nobody should ever have to go through.”
Feal said the importance of passing the Zadroga Act was exacerbated by the passage of time, with memories of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil now receding.
“This is a conversation I have with 90% of the first responders I speak with,” he said. “I don’t blame the American people for moving on. That’s what people do after a tragedy.
“I think most Americans think of 9/11 as innocent lives lost to senseless violence. But there are thousands of people still getting sick today.”