Many images continue to haunt civilian 9/11 responder Timothy DeMeo. He saw close to 100 people engulfed in flames jump from the twin towers, he said — images that are still among his nightmares. And there was another that he still can’t shake, 18 years later. “We found, on top of Tower 6, a shoe with a foot in it,” he said, his voice breaking. “There was such a horrific loss of life there.”
DeMeo, 50, is an engineer from Glen Head who works for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. After two jets struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he was ordered to go to the site because he is an emergency spill responder and an advanced hazardous materials technician. Before Sept. 11, his job mostly involved cleaning up hazardous spills from overturned tankers, underground leaks and the occasional plane crash.
DeMeo said he is now sick with 9/11-related illnesses, having been covered in toxic dust that day and then spending five and a half months working at ground zero. He worked seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, as part of the DEC World Trade Center Task Force, with duties that included the collection of petroleum and liquid chemical waste. He worked roughly 1,000 hours, he said, in basement levels 5 and 6 in both towers. “There was fuel everywhere,” he said. “We collected hundreds of thousands of various [types of] petroleum products.”
DeMeo has health coverage, he said, through the World Trade Center Health Program, and benefits from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and the Zadroga Act. What he is seeking is pension parity that was promised to firefighters, police officers and other workers who were part of the 9/11 cleanup effort, and later developed illnesses, in a bill signed by then Gov. George Pataki on June 15, 2005. According to the bill, they qualify for annual disability payments equal to three-quarters of their final average salary, tax-free. Though he is not a firefighter or police officer, DeMeo said, he was a first responder. He wants civilian 9/11 responders to receive the pension that has benefited uniformed responders. Pataki’s oversight in not including first responders like him was unintentional, DeMeo insists.
Now, forced to retire before his 55th birthday, with 25 years of service with the state instead of the required 30, his retirement pension will be considerably smaller. And there is a penalty for early retirement.
“People like me, we fell through the cracks,” said DeMeo, who is married and has two sons, ages 20 and 17, and a 10-year-old daughter. “This is all about the financial protection of my family. I shouldn’t be further punished for my dutiful response.”
He testified before the state Senate Committee on Civil Service and Pensions on July 17, 2018, pleading for pension parity. He appeared there after a bill that would have established that parity, written in 2015, died after failing to make it to the Senate floor.
DeMeo visited newly elected State Sen. Jim Gaughran in January, in the first week of his term, to ask for help, bringing with him statistics and the 2015 failed bill. Gaughran, a Democrat from Huntington, agreed to sponsor a new bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate, and then in the Assembly on June 20. It is awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature.
“This is really just to help people who are really sick because they stepped up to help their fellow citizens after Sept. 11, working side by side with the fire and police departments,” Gaughran said. “People had different roles and came from different departments, but they were all working for the same thing.”
Gaughran said that the bill was difficult to pass, because it would cost the state pension system an average of $320,000 per eligible first responder.
“If some retired now, some wouldn’t be entitled to a pension, or it would be very small,” he explained. “I think that we have an obligation to these people, many of whom are very sick, to give them some sort of dignity and to allow them to enjoy the rest of their lives with their families.”
Recalling that dreadful day
DeMeo was five minutes away from his Long Island City office when he received two calls on Sept. 11, telling him that a plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center and that he had to head there immediately.
Once there, he said, he saw fire coming from one of the plane’s jet engines that had fallen on West Street, across the street from where he was standing. “I had the foresight not to enter the building. I was there for the jet fuel,” he said. “I remember telling my colleague that the building wouldn’t come down.”
Five minutes later, the south tower collapsed. “I was thrown like a piece of paper and got hit in the neck by a brick,” DeMeo recounted, his eyes widening. “I was in a dust cloud, and couldn’t see anything. I thought I was dead.”
He found an emergency medical technician and asked for help, but was told he was on his own. DeMeo grabbed bandages and gauze from an overturned ambulance and made his way to a restaurant on West Street. He rinsed his eyes with water — and then watched the north tower fall.
A uniformed DEC law enforcement officer told him to walk to the South Street Seaport, where another DEC officer would take him to St. John’s Hospital in Queens. He had been struck by debris on his shoulders, neck, back and hip and had gotten it in his eyes.
“I left the hospital in dust-covered street clothes,” he said. “When I got to the office, I was stripped down and thrown in the shower. All we had were the protective suits and yellow protective over-boots that we wear in areas that are not environmentally safe. Nine hours later, I got home wearing that.”
In order to return to work, DeMeo said, he had to get pulmonary and orthopedic medical clearance. At work a week later, he was assigned to the DEC World Trade Center Task Force. He spent the next five and a half months at ground zero.
His worsening health
DeMeo continues to experience excruciating pain in his neck and back, and his spinal cord is pinched. In 2006 he developed respiratory problems. He lost his voice in 2008 and underwent his first surgery, a repair of his vocal cords, which was successful. He has had four other surgeries, and said he is having another one soon.
“I’m a very private person, and don’t usually talk about all of this except to my wife,” he said. “I feel guilty sitting at home. But my doctors won’t let me go back to work.”
The last time he worked was last August. He has been in the care of a variety of doctors for five years, and has been told from the beginning to quit his job and collect the three-quarter pension that uniformed first responders are receiving, he said. “I keep telling them I don’t get that,” DeMeo said. “I feel like the forgotten responder. You don’t even hear about us. They like to pretend we don’t exist.”
Gaughran said there are 610 people who would benefit from his bill.
DeMeo, who once enjoyed skiing, owns a motorcycle and loved to rebuild engines, no longer has the strength to toss a baseball with his children. His wife, Gloria, now mows the lawn. A first grade teacher, she is working at summer school for the first time to help with the family’s finances. She is dedicated to her husband, and her life has been difficult on many levels.
“I’m very private,” said Gloria, her eyes filling with tears. “You don’t understand what this is like unless you’re living it. It’s lonely.”