WASHINGTON — While New York City firefighter Ray Pfeifer was slowly dying of Sept. 11-related cancer, he always called himself the luckiest man alive.
Pfeifer, who died Sunday from that illness at the age of 59, would probably say his luck held.
If not for chance, Pfeifer would have died on Sept. 11, 2001, when 343 other city firefighters perished in the collapsing World Trade Center complex, including all the men on duty at Pfeifer’s Engine 40.
“9/11 happened, I’m supposed to work. I lived. Why? Because I switched my tour,” Pfeifer told HuffPost in March before laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in honor of those who have fought and died for America, before and after terrorists struck the twin towers.
His eyes glistened at the memory. One of those who did not survive was the friend who took Ray’s tour, Steve Mercado.
“He lost everybody in his fire house,” his wife Caryn said. “He was supposed to be working that day. So he does have that guilt.”
While Pfeifer didn’t know it in the wrenching months and years that followed, the Sept. 11 attack that killed the friends he tried to pull from the smoking rubble would ultimately claim Pfeifer’s life, too. Doctors believe the toxic clouds that boiled from the devastation are to blame for his cancer, and for the illnesses afflicting 40,000 other people who suffered exposure.
“So, then a couple of years later I get cancer. So what?” said Pfeifer as he rested in bed before his visit to the tomb at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Since getting diagnosed in 2009 with the renal cancer that had spread to his bones, Pfeifer had parts of his legs, hips, ribs, shoulder and brain removed or replaced to slow the disease’s progress.
That’s where, in his mind, the luck came in. He made it almost 16 more years after Sept. 11.
“I had time with my kids, to watch my kids grow up,” said Pfeifer, who would live to see his daughter, Taylor, become a police officer and his son, Terence, follow in his footsteps to become a New York City firefighter. In 2001, his children were both in grade school.
Ray’s luck also turned out to be a boon for thousands of other Sept. 11 responders, and a lesson to a Washington political class that wasn’t especially concerned in 2014 and 2015 that the legislation that was helping people like Ray Pfeifer was about to expire.
With leaders in Congress making no effort to renew that law, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, Pfeifer and plenty of others who were struggling with their own illnesses had to travel to Washington multiple times to finally secure a permanent replacement for the law in 2015.
It would be a lie to say that the first responders and civilians who sacrificed themselves to restore the nation after it suffered one of its worst terrorist attacks were not angry that their politicians no longer saw them as a priority. But Ray Pfeifer didn’t think the country needed more yelling or partisan political games.
“It was political, very political, believe me, and you know how political it got, but it was more not a Democratic thing, not a Republican thing, but an American thing,” Pfeifer said. “That’s what we had to drag into it — because these guys just didn’t get it, it was an American thing — trying to let them know it happened to America, not to us.”
On one of his many trips to the Capitol in late 2015, Pfeifer was made aware of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) walking fast across the basement of the Capitol. Portman was one of a few holdout senators whose support could put the Zadroga Reauthorization Act over a veto-proof majority and yield immense pressure on leaders to bring it up for a vote. Pfeifer was riding in a motorized wheelchair donated by the widow of another one of Sept. 11’s fallen. Portman was headed quickly for an exit. The wheelchair had a speed dial. Pfeifer pinned it down, and cornered Portman for a 10-minute discussion that got the lawmaker to back the bill.
Pfeifer never enjoyed embarrassing the politicians, though. He felt he could reach their humanity instead. He was with former Daily Show host Jon Stewart when Stewart and a news crew ran down a hallway to confront Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).
“There was this poor woman, deer in the headlights, trying to figure out what these guys are saying,” Pfeifer said. “And here’s Jon Stewart saying ‘I know you’re a patriot, but this is what you’ve gotta do.’”
Pfeifer called her office the next day to apologize, and eventually won her over.
“We did good-cop/bad-cop,” Stewart recalled. “But I didn’t know that’s how it was going to go. He’s just such a good guy that I was immediately the bad cop. And I was a bad cop. Ray was the most effective emissary.”
Stewart also traveled to Arlington in March. He was there when Pfeifer and Caryn laid the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
It was one of the things on Pfeifer’s bucket list. He had helped pass the Zadroga Act, won the key to the City of New York, and been feted at center ice of an Islanders game. He’d helped Joe Biden with his cancer “moonshot” initiative, and was grand marshal for the fire department at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan. He was also living in hospice care. But still he wanted to make the tiring car trip from New York to Virginia to honor America’s soldiers.
John Feal, the founder of Sept. 11 advocacy group the FealGood Foundation, encouraged Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to get Pfeifer that opportunity.
“The fact that he was willing to tell his story, and be heard, and fight for what he believed in — our democracy only works when regular people stand up and demand action. Ray was willing to come here week after week, month after month, year after year,” Gillibrand said. “He’s someone we all look up to. He inspires us. He’s someone who’s selfless, who’s given of himself his whole life. When he asked to lay this wreath, I said of course.”
He made it with a little over two months to spare.
“My fight is over,” Pfeifer said that day. “I don’t think I have any more fight in me to be honest with you. We got the 75 years for the health [program], got the compensation. But I don’t know if I have any more left. I wanted to come down here, pay my respects to the military. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers is an honor. I’ve had many things bestowed on me, but to do something like this is an honor.”
It was act of service and one more example that Pfeifer’s friends hope the country’s leaders understand and take to heart.
“Ray’s legacy, what he leaves behind is, hopefully — we live in such a time when everyone screams and yells at each other, we point fingers — maybe we could find some peace and tranquility, and a wave of calm,” Feal said. “Because I think that’s what Ray would want. Because that’s the way Ray lived his life.”
Pfeifer will be mourned in a Friday funeral at the Holy Family Church in Hicksville, New York.