LOWER MANHATTAN — Mike Bellone and Bob Barrett can’t wrap their heads around the passing of 15 years since America’s darkest day. For them, time hasn’t budged.
“It’s not 15 years for us. It’s still the same day. It’s like over and over again. It doesn’t end. It’s another guy who passes away, another guy who’s in the hospital that’s terminal,” said Bellone who was an EMT and rushed to ground zero that dreadful day.
Bellone, 62, met Bob Barrett, a retired firefighter with Ladder 20 while searching for survivors. The two became best friends, bonding over a shared value.
“We made a vow that we would try to do good,” said Barrett, 75.
Following the terrorist attacks, the men began teaching the ABC’s of 9/11 to kids in schools and camps. To date, they have talked to tens of thousands of children, as well as adults in 37 states and four countries.
Beyond the basic facts, their discussions focus on hope, how to survive and how to make a difference.
“We need more positive. We need more hope,” said Bellone. “They ask us ‘why did God let this happen?’”
"Anytime a kid asks you a question, you have to reach into your heart for the answer. If it helps them, it helps me, cause I’m searching for these answers myself,” said Barrett.
Bellone lives in upstate Seneca Falls with his wife Julie, whom he met when she was volunteering at ground zero. Barrett lives with his wife Kathy in Staten Island.
Both first responders suffer from respiratory problems. Bellone is especially ill. The toxins from the pit where he volunteered every day for nine months have also taken a toll on his heart. He said he went into cardiac arrest three times in recent weeks.
“I live on a pacemaker. Now I live on a defibrillator. It’s a whole different life now,” he said.
He applauds the tireless efforts of activist John Feal, and his FealGood Foundation for helping to get the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act extended. It means that medical assistance through the World Trade Center Health Program will continue to 2090, and that survivors and first responders will be fully compensated.
“All these guys that go around and try to get us money, if it wasn’t for them, the death count would be higher, much, much higher, said Bellone.
The men leave for Ohio on Tuesday where they will speak to kids at five high schools, and to the public at town hall meetings.