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Looking back on Ray Pfeifer's legacy as Zadroga Act progresses in Congress

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A group of first responders and lobbyists led by retired East Meadow firefighter Kenny Specht gathered in Washington, D.C., on June 11 to press members of the House of Representatives to vote on the extension of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

Footage from NowThis Politics shows Specht clutching the bunker jacket of the late Ray Pfeifer, who served with him in the East Meadow Fire Department’s Engine Company No. 3. Pfeifer spent eight months at ground zero after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He eventually developed kidney cancer and died in May 2017 at age 59.

“The East Meadow Fire Department taught me brotherhood,” Specht said before giving the jacket to a teary-eyed Jon Stewart, the former host of “The Daily Show” and a longtime friend of Pfeifer’s.

Even in the throes of his illness, Pfeifer traveled to Washington to urge Congress to extend the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provides health care coverage to 9/11 first responders fighting illnesses related to exposure to the toxins at the World Trade Center. Stewart became a leading advocate of the bill, and met Pfeifer along the way.

“I don’t deserve this, but I will treasure it like I treasured Ray and our friendship and all of you,” Stewart said of Pfeifer’s jacket. “We’re going to do it today, not just for Ray, but for all you guys and all the people he was fighting for.”

Hours later, Stewart spoke to a half-full House Judiciary Committee, arguing passionately for the extension of the Zadroga Act. He called it “shameful” that so few members appeared, while many first responders were there to appeal to them. “Thank God for people like Ray Pfeifer,” Stewart said. “The disrespect shown to him and the other lobbyists on this bill is utterly unacceptable.”

On June 12, the Judiciary Committee approved legislation to extend the bill, which will be debated on the floor of the House before it is voted on and, if approved, sent on to the Senate. On Fox News’s “Fox and Friends” on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “There is no way we won’t address this problem appropriately. We have in the past and we will in the future.”

If the bill is passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by President Trump, Manhattan emergency officials who responded to the Sept. 11 attacks will be granted compensation until 2090.

“It’s no surprise that [Pfeifer] worked this hard to get this passed,” said EMFD Chief Eric Becker. “Some people would worry about themselves to make sure they’re healthy. That’s not Ray. Up until his dying moments, he’d work to help out other people.”

Pfeifer joined the EMFD in 1978, and became its youngest captain in 1982. He was also a member of the New York City Fire Department, with which he responded to the 2001 attacks. Becker, who joined the EMFD in 1992, recalled seeing Pfeifer numerous times in the rubble initially known simply as “the pile.”

Becker was also a member of the Emergency Services Unit of the New York City Police Department, and spent nine months combing through the wreckage at ground zero.

“Luckily I’m healthy,” Becker said. “But it concerns me for my future. God forbid I do get sick. It’s a shame that this is what we have to do to protect people . . . I’m very thankful for people like that who are fighting for us.”

Becker said that Pfeifer often concealed the fact that he was ill, because he didn’t want attention and was so used to helping others. “You’ve got to know Ray — he was a very humble guy,” Becker said. “You’d never know he was sick. He’d tell you he had cancer, and then he’d laugh it off.”

After Pfeifer died, members of the FDNY formed the Ray Pfeifer Foundation to benefit first responders with medical needs not covered by insurance. Pfeifer’s friends said that his motto was “Do the right thing, even when no one is looking.”