North Jersey Record - April 14, 2019by Mike Kelly, North Jersey Record
NEW YORK – Under the arched ceilings of a majestic red-brick church where the stained glass windows bathed the sanctuary in a pastel glow, New York bid farewell on Friday to another firefighter who died in the line of duty.
The difference is that Lt. Timothy O’Neill did not perish inside a burning building.
He died from an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer his doctors say began creeping through his body nearly 18 years ago – not long after O’Neill rushed to Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks and breathed in toxins that permeated the rubble.
O'Neill was one of six first responders to die from health-related problems in a five-day span last week. He was 60 years old.
O'Neill's death is the latest chapter in an relentless plague that has continued to haunt America since the Sept. 11 attacks — a creeping terrorism that has already taken the lives of nearly 2,100 cops, firefighters, construction workers and others who developed cancers, respiratory ailments and other problems after breathing in too much of the toxic air at Ground Zero.
Within a year or so, experts predict that the death toll from 9/11-related health problems could exceed the more than 2,900 people who perished on Sept. 11, 2001 after Islamic jihadists hijacked four commercial jetliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center’s twin towers, the Pentagon and into a farm field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
“It’s going to get worse. It’s not going to get better,” said John Feal, a former Ground Zero construction worker who founded the Feal Good Foundation to draw attention to the growing health problems linked to 9/11.
About 10,000 of the more than 90,000 Ground Zero first responders, residents and office workers in lower Manhattan who registered with a federally-financed health-monitoring program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan are now being treated for some form of cancer.
Most had flocked to the rubble pile at the 16-acre site of the Trade Center in lower Manhattan that came to be known as Ground Zero, hoping to lend a hand in removing rubble and recovering victims’ bodies. But they soon encountered another menace that has proved as difficult to fight as terrorism.
Dangerous gases permeated the Ground Zero air for months. And the rubble itself was laced with asbestos and other toxins.
“I feel OK. Every day I hope for the best,” said retired firefighter Mike Simon, who is battling chronic sinus problems that developed from breathing too much toxic dust during the Ground Zero clean-up.
“We’re still losing guys every day,” Simon said. “It’s been 18 years and guys are still getting diagnosed. It’s a heavy cloud over the FDNY. You live together. Unfortunately you die together.”
What you need to know about Tim O’Neill was that he left behind a wife, Paula, three children, two step children and six grand-children.
He loved the New York Yankees and the New York Jets, softball, golf and bocce — usually with loud music as an accompaniment, friends said. He also earned a bachelor’s degree from Baruch College and volunteered at the Staten Island Zoo, caring for meerkats.
And finally, there was his other family — the fire department.
Three days after the 9/11 attacks, O’Neill was part of a team of first responders that found the body of Firefighter Thomas Hannafin in the rubble pile. On Friday, Hannafin’s brother, Peter, a house painter, drove from his home in Middletown, New Jersey, to pay tribute to O’Neill.
“It’s overwhelming,” Hannafin said, gazing at the crowd of firefighters. “This guy recovered my brother’s body. Not many guys have that kind of closure. They feel like my own brothers.”
In 2003, O’Neill retired from the fire department and moved to Naples, Florida. But he did not learn he had an advanced form of pancreatic cancer until August 2017.
More than 300 firefighters stood at attention on Castleton Avenue in Staten Island on Friday morning in front of Sacred Heart Church. They saluted as 11 bagpipers and a drummer from the FDNY’s pipe band played “Going Home.” A fire truck carried a wooden box with O’Neill’s ashes to the church.
Inside they heard the Rev. John Delendick, a monsignor and fire department chaplain, explain O’Neill’s love for them “will never end.”
“Speak to him,” said Delendick, who is fighting his own battle against skin cancer that he said he contracted during his time at Ground Zero. “Listen to him. One way or another, you’ll hear him because he’s there.”
In a eulogy, they heard Eddie Porto, a retired firefighter, describe how he still loved O’Neill for the leadership he brought to their fire house in Greenwich Village in the days before the 9/11 attacks.
And finally, in another eulogy, they heard O’Neill’s son, Thomas, offer an impassioned plea for Congress to extend health benefits for Ground Zero’s first responders — and even residents of lower Manhattan — who have developed sickness since the 9/11 attacks.
It took Congress until 2010 to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health And Compensation Act, named for a North Arlington native who became a New York City detective and died from Ground Zero health ailments.
The Zadroga legislation appropriated federal funds to cover health care costs for Ground Zero responders. Congress is now weighing proposals to expand a federal Victims Compensation Fund to cover additional payments for sickened workers.
As Thomas O’Neill mentioned the need for more federal funding — and public attention — to Ground Zero’s health victims, fire fighters and others who packed nearly every pew in the church gave him a standing ovation.
“My father refused to quit,” O’Neill said. “He never stopped fighting.”
Outside the church, as they reflected on their memories of Tim O’Neill, retired fire fighters Bill McCarthy and Bobby Ryan, wondered about their own mortality.
“There are so many guys that are coming down with sicknesses, it’s no longer a shock anymore,” said McCarthy who fought fires with O’Neill from a fire house in Greenwich Village that lost 11 fire fighters when the twin towers collapsed on 9/11.
“The surprise is you don’t get it,” Ryan interjected.
McCarthy nodded. “You have to pray that it’s not you,” he said. “It’s scary.”
“It seems like you’re waiting for the shoe to drop,” Ryan said.
Standing nearby, another retired firefighter, Jeff Anstead of Orange County, New York, said he has not contracted any health problems so far. But even if he did, he said he does not regret the time he spent at Ground Zero in the months after the 9/11 attacks.
“If I get sick, I get sick,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything I did that day.”
After the funeral mass, fire fighters filed out of Sacred Heart Church and again lined Castleton Avenue, saluting as O’Neill’s ashes were placed in the cab of a fire truck by his wife and driven away.
The pipe band played “America the Beautiful.”
And when the band marched down Castleton Avenue and the music faded, you could hear birds chirping in the trees.
Leaning against a granite wall, Tommy Knobel, 49, who retired from the fire department to battle his own intestinal cancer, watched as the fire truck with O’Neill’s ashes rolled away and disappeared.
“It’s a shock,” said Knobel, who lives in Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey. “You keep hearing about another guy, another guy, another guy. There’s too many people now.”