HICKSVILLE, N.Y. — Retired FDNY firefighter Raymond Pfeifer received a hero’s send-off Friday in his hometown of Hicksville, five days after he died of 9/11-related cancers at a hospice in Port Washington.
Comedian Jon Stewart, who had lobbied Congress with Pfeifer for an extension of the Zadroga Act, which guarantees medical care for sick first responders, gave an emotional eulogy at Holy Family Church, before Mayor Bill de Blasio, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro and hundreds of active-duty and retired firefighters.
“Make no mistake, Ray Pfeifer died in the line of duty,” Stewart said. “But more importantly, Ray Pfeifer lived in the line of duty. It was about service.”
The FDNY does not regard Pfeifer’s death as line-of-duty.
Pfeifer retired from the FDNY not long after he was diagnosed with Stage 4 renal cancer in 2009, which had spread to his bones. But he defied the odds and lived eight more years, long enough to see his daughter and son grow into young adults.
FDNY Chief Joseph Pfeifer, who is not related to Ray Pfeifer, talked about working closely with the firefighter in the years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He said Ray was his close aide as they began a new Unit for Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness.
“He helped rebuild the Fire Department,” Chief Pfeifer said, referring to the time after the terror attacks killed 343 FDNY personnel.
The chief observed that "people came to his wake who had nothing to do with the fire department but were sick from 9/11 injuries.”
Ray Pfeifer spent years at Manhattan’s Engine 40 and lost 12 of his FDNY brothers from the firehouse when the Twin Towers collapsed.
He had rushed to the site after the terror attack, even sleeping in his fire truck at Ground Zero for a week as he and other firefighters searched for the missing. Even though first responders were given breathing masks early on, Pfeifer said they weren’t enough.
“You have to remember, the toxins came through your eyes,” Pfeifer told PIX11 in one of his last interviews, in late March 2017. “I feel that I’m being poisoned, and I’m dying, every single day, because of terrorism.”
Pfeifer was speaking out, in the final months of his life, about a push to add the names of sick first responders to FDNY’s main Wall of Honor after their deaths.
After painstaking consideration, Nigro explained in a March 23 memo that the department would continue its policy of honoring post-9/11 deaths on a separate Wall of Honor at FDNY headquarters.
Pfeifer’s name will be added in September, along with others, a week before the 9/11 anniversary.
Pfeifer’s work on the Zadroga Act extension while he was so sick with cancer inspired the mayor to present Pfeifer with the Key to the City in January 2016.
Stewart spent much of his eulogy talking about Pfeifer chasing U.S. senators in his wheelchair in 2015, as he lobbied with Stewart to get the Zadroga Act extension.
“He sent that wheelchair into a gear I’ve never seen before,” Stewart said to laughter.
But Stewart was somber when he talked about the tactic the two used to get face-time with the Washington politicians. He said Pfeifer was the good cop.
“I was the bad cop,” Stewart recalled. “I couldn’t believe the disrespect shown to this man and other 9/11 heroes. They wouldn’t look him in the eye.”
Stewart broke down at the end of his eulogy, when he remembered how he’d become tired of getting business cards from politicians during the lobbying efforts.
“Ray tapped his vest,” Stewart said through tears, “and he reached in and pulled out prayer cards. Hundreds of them. And he said, ‘I got all the cards I need.’”
More than 150 FDNY personnel have died in the years since 9/11, and former Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano made note of that during his eulogy for Pfeifer.
“When we found out Ray was stricken with cancer, we were devastated,” Cassano told the mourners.
The funeral for Pfeifer was attended by thousands, who lined the streets near the church. Students from the Catholic school held U.S. flags as a ceremonial caisson carried Pfeifer’s casket, which was covered by the FDNY flag.
Pfeifer’s son, Terence, an FDNY emergency medical technician, was one of the pallbearers. Pfeifer received some good news shortly before he died: his son was accepted into the next class of FDNY firefighters.
Pfeifer’s daughter is joining the Suffolk County Police Department.
It’s obvious that Ray Pfeifer leaves behind a legacy of service.
The Sunday before he died, Stewart said Pfeifer called his cellphone from his hospice room. He told Stewart he couldn’t complain, even though Pfeifer was just days from death.
And Pfeifer repeated a line to Stewart he’d said many times before: “I’m a lucky guy,” Pfeifer had told Stewart, who added, “and he was.”