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Fire Department union leaders believe a recent departmental advisory that members of the service "forego participating in 9/11 gatherings" due to the coronavirus does not preclude attendance at the annual 9/11 memorial service held at the Firemen's Monument on Riverside Drive.
Created by rank-and-file Firefighters and fire officers as an alternative to the speech-making that dominates the official commemoration at the World Trade Center site, the Riverside Drive ceremony marks the department's loss of 343 members with simplicity and a reading of their names.
Now Marks 'Survivor' Deaths
In the years since its inception, it came to provide an opportunity to recognize the mounting death toll from firefighters' exposure to the toxic WTC air that permeated lower Manhattan for the months of the recovery effort.
More than 220 of them have succumbed to WTC-related health conditions, as have hundreds of first-responders from agencies from the tri-state region and the rest of the country.
More than 17,000 current World Trade Center Health Program participants are affiliated with the FDNY. The program, which is caring for 50,000 first-responders and survivors with a myriad of 9/11-related conditions, has warned that these pre-existing conditions put them at a greater risk from COVID 19.
"Sept. 11 this country saw the worst from terrorists," said Oren Barzilay, president of District Council 37 Local 2507, which represent Emergency Medical Technicians, paramedics and Fire Inspectors. "It is a day we should never forget, and as long as it is held outside with social distancing maintained and proper safety protocols followed, we should continue with this tradition."
Among Those Lost
DC 37 lost four members on 9/11 including Fire Dept. Chaplain Father Mychal F. Judge (Local 299), Paramedic Carlos Lillo (Local 2507), Lieut. Ricardo Quinn, EMS Officers Local 3621, and Chet Louie, Local 2021.
Local 2507 has lost more than 100 members to WTC illnesses, and several others who perished during the pandemic including a few who had WTC-related conditions.
"I don't think the department said we can't honor our fallen," said James Lemonda, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "What they said is we should be mindful of social distancing, and although we are facing a pandemic, that will not stop is from remembering and honoring those we lost."
He continued, "We can still pay tribute to the fallen and still do it in a way that follows the protocols that have been established."
In an Aug. 17 guidance, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro and Chief of Department John Sudnick asked members to "balance" their commitment "to never forget those we lost on that fateful day" with "our obligation to keep our current and former members, and their families, healthy and safe from the ever-looming threat of the COVID-19 virus."
The directive is limited to "various events at or near FDNY facilities, firehouses and EMS stations" and provided that the department would "authorize certain events if currently accepted protective conditions can be adhered to."
According to the memo, "indoor gatherings at any FDNY facility are strictly prohibited," and "as per current New York State regulations, all outdoor gatherings are limited to 50 persons maximum."
It makes face-coverings mandatory, and requires that "social-distancing of at least 6 feet between participants must be maintained" while providing an "adequate supply of hand sanitizer" for all those in attendance.
"All events must be pre-approved by the Borough Commander/ Bureau Head and are limited to two hours maximum," according to the directive.
An FDNY source said he expected the organizers of the Riverside Firemen's Memorial would be in contact with the department to work out logistics.
Many Keep It Small
"Traditionally, a lot of different firehouses have very small events with family members," said Andy Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. "The idea that there is only a large congregation event is not exactly true. I know from personal experience my firehouse goes to mass every year with the family of our Lieut. Bobby Nagel, and that is something I will do this year."
In early August, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum announced that it was canceling its annual Tribute in Light, which features two shafts of light to commemorate the attack on the WTC twin towers. The non-profit has felt economic fallout from the pandemic, with the New York Times reporting that a decline in ticket sales required layoffs and furloughs in June. On July 4, the outdoor memorial reopened, but the museum remains closed.
On Aug. 15, Governor Cuomo pledged the state would support the annual remembrance and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. pledged to help the non-profit with producing the signature event that requires 40 stagehands and electricians.
In a statement, Alice M. Greenwald, the president and chief executive of the museum, praised them for "for their assistance in offsetting the increased costs associated with the health-and-safety considerations around the tribute this year, and the technical support of so many that will enable the Tribute to be a continuing source of comfort to families and an inspiration to the world going forward."
This year, the 9/11 commemoration at Ground Zero will rely on a recording of the annual reading of the names by family members of those who perished on the day of the attack.
"Out of an abundance of caution and in line with the guidance regarding social distancing, we will not ask family members to read the names of victims in person on a stage this year," according to a notice on the museum's web-page.