BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The FDNY has been dealing with sensitive, politically difficult decisions in recent years, as more and more firefighters have succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses. More than 140 have fallen.
They are given respectful funerals, attended by the fire commissioner, and families later attend an emotional ceremony the week before Sept. 11, when the name of the deceased is placed on a Wall of Honor specifically designated for first responders who died in the years after the terror attack.
And then came Ray Pfeifer.
The retired firefighter from Engine 40 in Manhattan died this past Sunday, at the age of 59, from 9/11-related cancers.
Pfeifer became nationally famous when he lobbied Congress to extend the Zadroga Act compensation provisions to the year 2020. The health care benefits were extended to 2090.
Pfeifer called Jon Stewart a friend and the Emmy-winning entertainer will deliver a eulogy Friday at Pfeifer’s funeral.
Mayor Bill deBlasio and Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro will both attend, but they won’t be speaking.
That’s because Pfeifer’s death is not considered an active, line-of-duty fatality.
The mayor had given the Queens-born Pfeifer the key to the city in early 2016 because of his work on the Zadroga Act extension. But the FDNY will not be putting Pfeifer’s name on the main Wall of Honor established in 1865 for firefighters killed in the line of duty, something he had asked for in one of his last interviews.
“We should be on the wall,” Pfeifer told PIX11 from his home in Hicksville, sitting in a wheelchair in late March.
Pfeifer was already in hospice care, telling us cancer had spread to his brain, lungs, bones and adrenal glands.
“I feel that I’m being poisoned and I’m dying, every single day, because of terrorism,” Pfeifer said at the time.
Nigro and his FDNY management team had spent a long time laboring over how 9/11-related deaths should be handled. Nigro has attended every funeral for firefighters who died from Ground Zero-related illnesses and the plaque dedications that followed.
But he said he couldn’t transmit the signal 5-5-5-5 for the death of a post-9/11 hero.
“We have reserved that profound signal for announcing traditional, line-of-duty deaths,” Nigro wrote in a lengthy message on March 23, after PIX11 started making inquiries about the Wall of Honor.
On Thursday, as the FDNY was setting up arrangements for Pfeifer’s funeral with the mayor’s office, FDNY Deputy Commissioner Francis Gribbon explained to PIX11 the department’s decision-making.
“Ray’s name will go up on the Sept. 11 wall this year,” Gribbon said. “That wall specifically speaks to those people who participated in the rescue and recovery efforts.”
Gribbon said the FDNY spent years working on the right way to handle these situations. The department ultimately decided it needed a separate wall for the post-9/11 deaths.
“That’s different than falling off a building to your death,” Gribbon said, referencing the April 20 active-duty accident involving Firefighter William Tolley, who fell from a roof while battling a fire in Ridgewood, Queens, “or getting run over by an ambulance, on duty,” referring to the recent death of EMT Ydira Arroyo, who was responding to a call when a deranged man grabbed the wheel of her vehicle and ran over the mother of five.
Gribbon said Pfeifer’s service will likely have the feel of an active-duty funeral because a massive turn-out is expected, along with a large contingent of bagpipers.
Former Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano, a Pfeifer friend, will also deliver a eulogy.
A ceremonial caisson will likely transport Pfeifer’s casket to Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Hicksville, but it won’t be the official caisson used for active-duty funerals.