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  • Mike Ciampo

343 and Counting: When Will It Stop?

During the days, weeks, and years following September 11, 2001, if you were working in the firehouse and the tones suddenly went off and you heard the dispatcher’s voice say, “All units: Stand by for a department message—the signal 5-5-5-5 is transmitted, the department regrets to announce the death of … while operating at Manhattan Box 5-5-8087.” Sometimes it would happen a few times a day or then days would go by before the signal was transmitted again. Since there were so many members unaccounted for in the ruins, you would stand there listening intently. “Did I know them? Would I be going to another funeral? What am I going to say to the family?” were thoughts running through your head before the name and rank were announced.

Many times, you didn’t know the members but felt sorrow for their family, friends, and company. But, at other times, it hit you hard. "They just announced a brother who was in my squad in probie school." "We played softball together in the FD league." "He got promoted out of our battalion." "He was on the training rotation." "He was a dear friend." Going to funerals and working at Ground Zero with your company or taking a “work detail” there for weeks at a time were the new normal. It’s what you did to find our brothers and bring other people’s remains back to their families.

Unfortunately, right after the collapse, many members suddenly became ill from surviving the tragic event. Soon, they developed severe lung problems and illnesses and were forced to retire. It was quickly noticed in firehouses across the city; senior firefighters were now leaving in droves and a new cadre of firefighters would replace them. As this transition took place, other things began happening slowly to the members remaining on the job who kept going to fires, emergencies, and medical calls. Their daily exposures mixed in with the toxins taken in at the Trade Center were now starting to have an effect on them. Disability retirements and illnesses were popping up all around you. Many times, you were in disbelief because a few tours earlier you worked with a member at a job and then you heard he was sick or failed the lung function test and was going to be retired.

As time passed, you’d hope that was the worst of it, but the staggering number of audible tones going off and the 5-5-5-5 signal transmitted in the firehouses began again. Members with WTC illnesses and cancer were growing rapidly and passing away from dreadful diseases. Nobody really paid attention to the exact number at first; then, when things began accumulating over the years and the number kept climbing, reality set in. Every time you hear of another member of the department passing away from 9-11 illnesses, it brings sorrow into your soul and grief you know too well to another family.

Twenty-two years have passed, and the FDNY has reached a horrible milestone: We’ve matched the same number of members lost on 9-11 to WTC related diseases, 343.

Unfortunately, when we reached this number, the department put out some other alarming statistics. More than 11,000 members are experiencing some kind of WTC illness and, out of that, more than 3,500 are suffering with a form of cancer. Numbers will continue to climb and the sacrifice of those lost that day will always be deem heroic in nature. However, those who stayed to support the department, the city, and the citizens they swore to protect and became ill face uncertainty in their lives as the days move forward.

For many of us who have battled 9-11 cancer or other illnesses, we wonder what our future holds, especially seeing the numbers reported. We’ll always be proud of our service and having had the opportunity to work with phenomenal firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics within the department. As we move forward, with new personnel in firehouses, we must stop and pause when the signal is transmitted. It is our vow to uphold the promise of Never Forgetting, whether from that tragic day or from these dreadful diseases.

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