I want you to remember waking up on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001 — that is, if you had slept at all the night before. Recall how you felt about your country, your neighbors, and especially our lion-hearted first responders, whose bravery, selflessness and sacrifice we promised never to forget. Remember how you felt in the weeks and months that followed, when first responders and volunteers from Long Island and throughout the nation gathered at ground zero to search for survivors and victims and start the difficult task of rebuilding.
We were rightly in awe of our first responders, mourning those who had laid down their lives for us, and profoundly moved by their devastated brethren, who spent months digging through the rubble, atop a smoldering pile of pulverized concrete and glass, dioxin, PCB, benzene, asbestos and other deadly toxins. There was nothing we would not do for them.
Those first responders, and indeed the downtown community of office workers, students, construction workers and residents who returned after the attacks, are now disproportionately filling operating rooms, chemotherapy rooms and oncologists’ offices. They are struggling to breathe, fighting cancer, fighting lung disease, fighting for their lives. Since 9/11, 68 cancers have been linked to the toxins, as well as numerous respiratory diseases.
Today, the 9/11 community is in the grips of a health crisis. We have lost more people to diseases that arose in the aftermath of the attacks than we lost that day.
What does our promise to Never Forget require of us now? The answer is simple: wear a mask.
Many members of the 9/11 community have compromised immune systems and serious co-morbidities that make them especially vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19. The men and women who sacrificed so much for us, who rushed to answer the call and who eventually rebuilt New York City’s financial heart, are all around you. They are behind you at the supermarket, picking their kids and grandkids up from school, on your train, on your bus — they are everywhere. Yet if you just look at them, they are unidentifiable. You may not know that your child’s teacher taught in a school in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11 and now, as a result, suffers from chronic asthma. Or that your co-worker was a volunteer firefighter who answered the call of duty on 9/11, eventually resulting in a diagnosis of lung cancer.
If today were Sept. 12, 2001, and Long Islanders were asked to wear masks to protect the 9/11 community from the spread of a virus, we would not hesitate. We would wear our masks with pride — pride for those first responders, and pride for our country. And we would be proud of ourselves, for coming together and protecting those who protected us.
Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat or Independent, we are all Long Islanders. Whether you believe that masks can stop or help slow the spread of the coronavirus or not, we are all Long Islanders. Whether you are a member of the 9/11 community or not, we are all Long Islanders.
And we now have an opportunity to demonstrate the same unity we did 19 years ago, by following the safety precautions recommended by public health officials: wearing masks, socially distancing, washing our hands frequently and staying home when we’re not feeling well or showing any symptoms of Covid-19.
We can protect our families and communities, particularly those with pre-existing conditions, and we can and will crush this virus. The 9/11 community did its part. It is time for us to do ours.
Attorney Sara Director, a native of Glen Cove who now lives in Locust Valley, is a partner at Barasch & McGarry, which has represented more than 20,000 9/11 first responders and survivors.