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COVID-19 has killed dozens of 9/11 first responders

As America marks the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, one activist calls Trump pandemic response "atrocious."
Firefighter John Knox
Retired FDNY Fire Marshal John Knox in 2017.Debbie Egan-Chin / NY Daily News via Getty Images

Richard Seaberry, Albert Petrocelli, John Knox, Arthur Lacker and Edward Doty were among the dozens of first responders who answered the call during one national tragedy only to die in another.

Image: FDNY EMT Richard Seaberry
FDNY EMT Richard Seaberry.Courtesy FDNY

And as New York and the nation Friday marked the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks while in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the ranks of the nearly 200,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 have been filled by dozens of heroes like these who risked their lives to save others when the twin towers fell.

“Gross undercount” were the words New York City attorney Michael Barasch used in a recent interview in which he revealed that 22 of the 20,000 9/11 first responders and survivors he represented with ground zero-related illnesses had died of COVID-19.

Since then, Barasch has learned that five times more 9/11 first responders died of the coronavirus than he first thought.

“Of these individuals, more than 100 have died of COVID-19 because of ground zero-related diseases," Barasch’s spokeman, Patrick Rheaume, said Friday in a statement.

As many as 68 types of cancers and dozens of respiratory ailments reported by many 9/11 first responders left them "uniquely vulnerable to an illness that attacks the lungs and the immune system,” Rheaume added.

John Feal, a demolition supervisor at ground zero who runs the Fealgood Foundation, which advocates on behalf of the first responders, said he knows of at least four dozen who came down with the disease and more than a thousand who have tested positive. And he’s one of them.

“In March, we put out a video telling our people to take this seriously, and then a week later I got it,” Feal told NBC News. “To this day, I don’t know how I got it. I just know that I never experienced pain like that before.”

Feal, who lost part of his left foot after a 4-ton steel beam fell on it at ground zero, said he felt like his body was on fire and, at the same time, it was so hard to breathe he felt like he was drowning. “I don’t scare easily but this scared me,” he said.

Knox, 84, a former New York City firefighter who came out of retirement to help search for bodies at ground zero, died in March. Seaberry, 63, a veteran EMT from Queens who also took part in the rescue and grim recovery efforts, died in April. Lacker, 72, a construction worker who toiled in “the pit” for two years, also died in April.

Petrocelli was 73 when he, too, died in April. He was a New York City Fire Department battalion chief on 9/11 and, along with his firefighter son, Albert Jr., responded to the burning World Trade Center where his other son, a commodities trader named Mark, was trapped on the 93rd floor of the north tower. They never found Mark’s body.

Libeskind's Design Officially Chosen for WTC Site
Albert Petrocelli with a photo of his son, Mark, at a media conference announcing the winning design for the World Trade Center site Feb. 27, 2003 in New York City.Mario Tama / Getty Images

While America mourned 9/11, the coronavirus death toll rose by 1,249 to 193,186 and the number of confirmed cases climbed to nearly 6.5 million –- both world-leading numbers, the latest NBC News figures show.

President Donald Trump, accused of lying to the American public about the severity of the pandemic while privately admitting to journalist Bob Woodward that the coronavirus was “deadly stuff,” headed to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Friday for the ceremony at the Flight 93 National Memorial.

While Trump has repeatedly praised his administration’s response to the pandemic, the United States now accounts for over a fifth of the world’s more than 910,000 coronavirus fatalities and 28 million confirmed cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard.

Feal said he steadfastly tried not to pick a political side when he battled the George W. Bush administration after 9/11 to get help for the first responders, and last year when he successfully lobbied Congress with the comedian Jon Stewart to renew funding for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

But Feal admitted that as he watched Trump depart for Shanksville on Friday, he found himself wadding-up pieces of paper into balls and throwing them at the TV screen.

“The response to the pandemic by the federal government has been a disaster, just atrocious,” Feal said. “There’s all this bragging about what a great job we’re doing with the pandemic while at the same time we’re normalizing people dying. We’re losing touch with humanity. We have failed. And I’m not alone in thinking that.”

In other coronavirus news:

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert and a frequent Trump target, warned that as we head into the flu season, Americans need to continue to be vigilant about COVID-19. While the number of new cases has slowly been declining in recent weeks, the nation is still experiencing new outbreaks that could become more severe as the weather turns colder. “We need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter, because it’s not going to be easy,” Fauci said during a panel of doctors from Harvard Medical School. Fauci has drawn the ire of Trump and survived a White House attempt to discredit him after he contradicted the president’s more optimistic assessment of the progress of the pandemic.
  • The Trump Administration apologized Friday after The New York Daily News reported that the Treasury Department had "siphoned" $4 million dollars over the last four years from from the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program, which helps New York City firefighters, EMTs and paramedics suffering from 9/11-related illnesses pay their bills. “It’s wrong, it shouldn’t happen this way, and we are doing everything that we can, working with the city to try and fix this really unfortunate situation,” Treasury Department spokeswoman Rebecca Miller told the newspaper.
  • The run on toilet paper and other essentials may be over, but grocery prices have gone up again. August was the second most expensive month for groceries this year, just slightly behind May. The national average for a basket of 37 items peaked at $138.78 in May, then fell in June and July to $136.40, and shot back up to $138.63 in August. Why? “Promotions offered to consumers continue to be suppressed below their pre-COVID-19 levels for the fifth straight month," Phil Tedesco, director of retail analytics for Nielsen, told NBC News. "August saw a dip in this crucial metric from July, which is what has caused this month to be more expensive than in recent months."

  • The bars are reopening Monday at 50-percent capacity in most of Florida, a hard-hit state where the infection and death rates have been going down but where 176 people died of COVID-19 overnight and 12,658 new cases were reported. The bars in Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach County, however, will continue to remain closed for now, officials said. Florida experienced an explosion of new cases and deaths when Gov. Ron DeSantis, at the urging of Trump, ordered on April 29 that his state be reopened after only a brief quarantine. When it became clear that the bars were becoming COVID-19 spreading centers, DeSantis ordered them closed on June 26. Florida, as of Friday, has reported 12,481 coronavirus deaths and 654,731 confirmed infections since the start of the pandemic.