WASHINGTON — When Jon Stewart and a group of 9/11 responders walked the halls of Congress this past week hoping to get commitments from senators to pass a permanent 9/11 bill, what they mostly got were business cards.
For Ray Pfeifer, a veteran of the New York City Fire Department with stage 4 cancer, those cards didn’t mean much. He threw them away. And he didn’t have them to show for a camera crew later when Stewart wanted to demonstrate what passes for commitment in Washington.
But Pfeifer had other cards that he pulled from his jacket on Thursday afternoon in the Hart Senate Office Building. He thought they better illustrated what commitment meant to the people who answered the call of duty on Sept. 11, 2001.
They were funeral prayer cards — laminated versions of the Mass cards that are often given out at Catholic services for the dead.
“They’re called remembrance cards because they’re all faiths,” Pfeifer told HuffPost from his home Saturday as he rested up for what he hopes will be a final week pushing to pass a new 9/11 law. “Most of the time, you’d only get a prayer on it, but during 9/11, they put faces on it, too, because they wanted to remember.”
Pfeifer has about 50 of them. Most, he leaves in his uniform pocket as a sort of personal memorial to the hardest time in his life.
“I do carry one with me all the time, my friend, Mike Otten,” Pfeifer said. Pfeifer met Otten when he joined the same West Side Manhattan firehouse in 1987. Otten was last seen on video footage heading into the complex underneath the twin towers.
Pfeifer hadn’t been on duty that day, and got to ground zero after the towers fell. He remembers how Otten’s 11-year-old son asked him if they would ever find his dad, and how months on the pile searching for Otten and the others lost that day nearly destroyed Pfeifer.
“I almost lost my family,” he said. “I never went home. I went to wakes, I went to the firehouse, and went back to dig. I never saw my kids, except when my wife brought them. She’s a saint.”
“I was a drunk. I’m not a drinker, but I was then,” he said. “It’s how I coped. Drink to go to sleep. Find somebody’s finger or skull, and try to bury it by drinking.”
He got through it, and he counts himself as lucky, despite his yearslong battle against cancer in his kidneys, bones and lymph nodes.
Like other 9/11 firefighters who survived — for now — Pfeifer is well-versed in gallows humor, and could chuckle when he said, “It’s like when I was a kid, I had a baseball card collection. Now I have this.”
His collection keeps growing. He added his former fire department friend Randy Wiebicke in 2011.
He collected another friend, firefighter Greg Chevalley, last April. Marci Simms, a former police officer Pfeifer met at a memorial not very long ago, joined the grim collection just last month. They all died of 9/11-linked cancer, just like Pfeifer will.
The solemn expressions on the faces of the other first responders with Pfeifer in the Hart building when he took the cards out said they knew exactly what they were. The media people hadn’t seen them before.
“Ah, Jesus,” said Stewart, as Pfeifer fanned out the stack of people he’d known. “They’re cards of his friends.”
One card Pfeifer doesn’t have is that of James Costello, a department battalion chief whose cancer claimed him just before Thanksgiving. Pfeifer couldn’t make the funeral on Wednesday because he was in Washington trying to convince lawmakers to finally pass the new 9/11 health and compensation law to replace the one that began expiring in September. “I would have been at Jimmy’s funeral if I wasn’t down there,” Pfeifer said.
Stewart arrived Thursday to raise the pressure, especially on congressional leaders who have refused to bring up for a vote a 9/11 bill that already has been sponsored by majorities in the House and Senate.
Instead, leaders have pledged to attach some version of new health and compensation legislation to a larger bill, most likely the massive omnibus spending package that must pass next week to keep the government open. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made that promise to responders soon after Stewart showed up.
“When they say, ‘Never forget,’ sometimes you’ve got to call them out on it,” said Pfeifer on Thursday.
He doesn’t use his cards to remember. For him, forgetting isn’t possible. For him, it’s more about the future, and a nudge to do what he can for 33,000 ailing Sept. 11 responders.
“It’s just a reminder of what’s going to happen to me, eventually,” Pfeifer said, referring particularly to the new additions. “It’s a little harder to look at those.”
He hopes it’s a little harder for Congress to look away.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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