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Queens men set up foundation for first responders

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Joseph Garofalo stood in the kitchen of his Ozone Park home several weeks before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, discussing the changes to this year’s ceremony with Peter Ticali, the vice president of their foundation for first responders.

Garofalo, who was an officer in the city Department of Corrections and spent eight days at the World Trade Center site, and Ticali, the borough manager for the Queens Community Emergency Response Team, recently incorporated the 9/11 WTC First Responders Foundation — a nonprofit they hope will create a national network of first responders ranging from community volunteers to firefighters and everyone in between.

The two were angered — though far from surprised — by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement that this year’s ceremony would feature speeches by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, be attended by the families of the fallen and leave little or no room for the various responders who rushed to the site in the days immediately following the attacks.

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said priority was given to victims’ family members, while the Police Department, Fire Department and Port Authority Police will have an important role in the ceremony in keeping with the practice of the past nine years.

“In addition, Zuccotti Park, the site adjacent to the World Trade Center site where the 9/11 ceremony has been held the past four years, will be open for first responders to watch the ceremony and commemorate the day,” spokeswoman Evelyn Erskine said.

Garofalo said he continually honors first responders.

“We have our own commemoration of the fallen heroes,” he said. “Someone dies every month.”

The slight by Bloomberg is just the most recent — but far from the worst — example of how the nation has forgotten the firefighters, police officers, emergency medical services workers, sanitation workers, priests, civilian volunteers and numerous others who are being denied health coverage for illnesses they suffer today as a result of breathing in the contaminated air at the site, Garofalo said.

“They’re often neglected. They’re assumed to be there. Truthfully, no one talks about this,” said Ticali, whose son spent time near the WTC site as an NYPD cadet. “First responders are learning now, 10 years later — they believed they were going to be taken care of, Now they’re learning they’re not.”

Garofalo said that from his position atop the shotgun post on Riker’s Island on Sept. 11, it took only about four minutes after the towers fell before he could smell the debris coming all the way from the city.

He finished up his tour of duty and showed up the next day, in uniform, at Ground Zero at 10 a.m.

Sifting through the rubble, Garofalo was unaware the air he was breathing contained asbestos, fiberglass, PVC and metal.

He asked for a respirator, but all he got was a paper dusk mask.

“The first day there I was sucking down that dust. People were eating food and ingesting it,” he recalled.

Many of those first responders are now suffering from medical discrimination, Garofalo believes, as they attempt to seek treatment for upper airway diseases, poor balance and prostate, brain, thyroid and pancreatic cancers — so many various types that the doctors say they couldn’t possibly be related.

He said 25 percent of the 93,000 first responders have cancer due to lowered immune systems. A report published last week in “The Lancet” medical journal shows an excess of cancer cases reported in firefighters who survived the disaster.

“The city of New York knew damn well about asbestos. Why didn’t they stop everyone before they went in?” he asked. “If we were detoxed the right way, maybe those people might not have cancer.”

“Shoulda, coulda, woulda,” Ticali added.

Garofalo said he first started suffering from afflictions such as sinus and bronchial disorders, asthma and brain fog — what he described as a bad cold with body aches.

“In the beginning I was affected a lot,” he said, adding that he is still bedridden up to four days a week. “I can think and concentrate better in the last three years.”

“I hold no one in contempt,” he said, referring to the doctors he saw, many of whom told him they were not capable of diagnosing his problems considering the number of combinations and toxins he had in his body.

His contempt is reserved for the bureaucracies, whether they be governments or the insurance industry, which have denied coverage to first responders.

Aside from jeopardizing the lives of those men and women, Garofalo and Ticali said they both worry it sends the message to would-be responders in the future that they may not be taken care of.

“The politics, the laws have now given food for thought for our children. They now have the opportunity to think twice,” Garofalo said. “Politics put a bad message out there.”

In an attempt to preserve the force that drives first responders to act in the face of danger, the two men recently completed a two-year process to register the nonprofit they hope will create a national network of, by and for first responders.

“In reality, we need a forum for first responders to take care of their own,” Ticali said.

Ticali said he hopes to build a grassroots network of chapters in every state.

“I think we’re going to be fighting the same fight in another 10 years,” Ticali said. “Some people will find closure on 9/11. To them it’s an ending; to me it’s a beginning.”

Visit 911wtcfirstrespondersfoundation.org for more information.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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