Written by Kelly Zemnickis
I remember exactly how my day started on September 11, 2001. At the time I was working at the CBC Television in Toronto, and I was the first one in the office. I turned on my computer and went to check my Yahoo! email account, and on the main news page I recall seeing a little icon with text reading something like "Plane hits World Trade Centre". For whatever the reason, I shrugged it off thinking it hit that little antenna atop one of the buildings. Oh well. I carried on with getting scripts ready (I worked on a comedy show at the time). Not long after, a co-worker ran in and blurted "Did you hear what's happening in New York?!" as he ran to the writers' room. Turning on the TV, we saw the second plane fly into the second building and we looked at each other in horror. I had no idea what was happening. Was America at war? The CN Tower was right across the street from my office building, was it going to get hit next? What direction would it fall in? I was so confused and very panicked.
I have family in the NYC area, so once it was confirmed they were okay my brain did this dance between "WTF?!" and "Who the hell would do this?!" A neighbour in my community had a candle lit on their front porch that night, and I'd soon learn one of their sons worked in one of the buildings. They didn't know if he was okay.
That day obviously drastically changed how we view the world, how we travel, etc etc. And every time this sombre anniversary comes around, countless people promise to "Never Forget". But the sad truth is, a lot of people HAVE forgotten and a lot of people have stopped caring. It's in the past, it happened, it's over... and all of those things couldn't be further from the truth for thousands and thousands of people. Namely the 9/11 First Responders that are still with us, and their families that carry their memories and miss them daily. They have sadly gone from being heroes to being victims.
As the years went on, less and less was mentioned on the news. Water cooler conversations changed. Except on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart... Jon kept the conversation going. And it's because of that show that I was even aware that these First Responders were having tremendous difficulty in getting a bill passed to ensure they'd have healthcare and compensation in the years to come, because they were starting to get very sick and it was at a pace that their regular insurance just couldn't cover. So I'm sitting at home one night in December of 2015, watching The Daily Show but with Trevor Noah as host and I tuned in that night because Jon Stewart was returning. And I was curious to hear what he was going to chat about. As it turned out, Jon was back to make a public plea to get the US Government to renew the Zadroga Bill- which had expired months earlier and was about to vanish. He begged the viewers to bombard Congress with a hashtag of "Worst Responders", a nod to how poorly these government officials were doing their job of helping their heroes and citizens. I sat and watched this show and just cried, because to me these pleas were for something that made ZERO sense to me. WHY weren't they being helped?! Look what these responders did for their community and country! How could their government have a "too bad, so sad" attitude towards them?! So, I send a Tweet as Jon encouraged viewers to do. And I thought nothing of it, because I'm a Canadian so what did my voice matter?
That tweet changed my life. It actually did.
Not a lot of people saw it, but one person who did was a 9/11 First Responder and he added me on Twitter. I added him back and for SOME REASON I messaged him and asked if there was anything I could do to help. "Maybe I could transcribe responder stories and give them to people in Congress?" was my initial question, and he in turn told me to talk to a guy named John Feal- the head of an organization called the FealGood Foundation that helps 9/11 First Responders and their families. I reached out and posed the same question to John, and he emailed me back a brief "What is a transcriber?" I laughed at his reply and called him directly, and we talked and talked. As it turned out, John was a responder himself (working construction- there were more non-uniform to uniformed workers at Ground Zero) and was injured a few days after the towers fell. He struggled for years to get financial compensation, because he was injured just outside of the window that insurance companies gave workers to file a claim. That's right, there was a window to claim coverage if you got hurt at Ground Zero. And John missed it by a narrow margin, when it was no longer considered "an act of terrorism". He was left to fend for himself, he lost close to everything as he fought to get back on his feet literally and figuratively. (He lost a portion of his foot when thousands of pounds of steel fell on him at the site.) And his fellow responders started to take note, that there was a guy who was getting answers and results. Little by little, he had the building blocks for a Foundation and he started helping strangers because no one else was. Their Government wasn't listening, their Union's hands were tied.
I was stunned by the stories he told me and asked if I could come down with a camera. He asked when I'd be there. All of a sudden I had a documentary idea, and I'd never made a documentary but I am a writer and I have a good nose for a story. I knew that if I didn't know who this John Feal guy was, someone else might not either. And within weeks, alongside my friends Rob & Kristine who are documentary filmmakers themselves, we had the outline for 'No Responders Left Behind' and a plan to follow around John Feal and his 9/11 community. We didn't really know what the story outline was, we really didn't, but we all knew that there was something here that other people needed to know about. People needed to be reminded that 9/11 happens every day for hundreds and hundreds of people, those towers falling daily. And the experience was very Russian Doll like, we'd follow one path and then we discovered another story underneath (John's dear friend,Ray Pfeifer as an example) and another underneath that (widow Jennifer McNamara and how she is keeping her husband's memory alive as she raises their son Jack). This community that has a common thread of John Feal, this community who was made up of people who were all affected by that day but only met 5, 10 years later. And who now support each other through thick and thin.
Weeks before we began filming, I lost someone I loved to Cancer so I went into the process in mourning and I connected to people I'd never have met otherwise in a way I'd never have expected. It was overwhelming, and my team and I were just following our storytelling nose but we were amongst people who were SO GRATEFUL to be listened to. We quickly became referred to as "the Canadians", welcomed into their homes and lives with our cameras and patiently answering our questions and nodding in agreement when we looked perplexed. So much of their struggle is perplexing, their fight for medication coverage or PTSD treatment, I mean look what they did and what they saw that day and in the days to follow... no human is equipped to deal with that. No human is trained to deal with those smells and those sights. And in the years that have passed, they are getting sicker and sicker. Think about a florescent lightbulb breaking, as a example. One breaking, you're not in too much danger. Think of how many of those bulbs were in the World Trade Centre towers, all of that Mercury they inhaled... the computers that busted up from each floor that collapsed, the telephones, the fluids from the airplanes. They breathed in over 2500 different chemicals. And yet, they were told the air was safe.
Prior to this documentary, I didn't think much of a First Responder post trauma. You see them do their job, and they are awesome and we say thank you, and then everyone goes their separate ways. I never wondered how they were in the days that followed, if they felt okay mentally and physically. And knowing where I was on 9/11 and where I found myself with these cameras, it was pretty wild and overwhelming. We all realized we were doing something very important, capturing these stories and sadly seeing people leave this world because they fought as hard and as long as they could. Having Jon Stewart himself get involved with our film brought it full circle. That Zadroga Bill did get renewed when we began filming in 2016. Our film was roughly completed in 2018. And then... word started to spread on John Feal's social media that the Compensation portion of the Bill was almost out of money almost 3 years later. They'd have to return to Washington,D.C. and start the fight all over again. And just like that, we were back by their side as they fought to be heard by their own government yet AGAIN.
Jon Stewart offering one of the most emotional pleas I've ever heard.
Think about what these men and women did that day, think about what a First Responder does without a second's thought. We owe it to them to continue to share their stories, to continue to speak their names and honour their sacrifice. Not just once a year, but each day we're here. We can't let them become just a moment's thought one day a year, especially for those who continue to be in such pain and for those who are yet to get sick because this is far from over.
Because it will get worse. Each year John Feal hosts a Reading of the Names at his 9/11 Responders Remembered Park in Long Island. Names are read of those who have passed from a 9/11 related illness. This September they will read over 200 names. In one year, over 200 people have died from an illness incurred from their acts of bravery.
President Donald Trump did sign the renewal, Jon Stewart's plea didn't go unnoticed. We got it all on camera and have returned to the editing room, with another aspect to our film that we never thought would happen. It's been a heartbreaking experience, but a beautiful one at that. We became friends with some of these heroes who passed away during filming, but who we know will be watching from above when the movie does premiere. When I think back to that Tweet I initally sent into the world, I chuckle to myself a little bit... I guess there WAS something I could do. But in truth, we all have the power to do something, change an attitude... our voice matters.
I only learned last year that my neighbours who put that candle outside their home on 9/11 did in fact lose their son. As I mentioned that story to a friend, his name popped up on memorial coverage on NBC, which made me catch my breath. I will be in Europe this September 11th, and I will take the day to pause and reflect for people I never met and those I have met as a result of that terribly sad day.
I will never forget, because they must never be forgotten.