No. 10: John Feal (9/11)

To lay eyes on John Feal is to know he was marked by September 11. His blue shirt displays the Statue of Liberty in front of the American flag. Like the red bracelet and ring he’s wearing, it bears the name of a September 11-related foundation that he started. His black SUV carries a silhouette of the logo that’s on his shirt.

A tattoo on his left arm shows an eagle in front of the twin towers, a flag rippling in the background, and the letters FDNY running down toward his elbow. Nearly his entire back is taken up a black-inked Statue of Liberty holding a baby. Above Lady Liberty are the words “No Responder Left Behind.” To the left, there are five dates. The first is 9/17/01: “The day my life was altered,” Feal says.

Ground Zero injury
Feal represents the countless heroic acts that arose from September 11, 2001. A construction supervisor who worked 70 to 80 hours a week at sites around the New York City area, Feal, 44, a lifelong Long Island resident, was called to Ground Zero on September 12 to help remove debris from the twin towers wreckage. On September 17, an 8,000-pound steel beam fell on his left foot.

He spent nine days in the hospital, where he had multiple surgeries and almost died of gangrene. Doctors had to amputate part of the wounded foot. Over the next five years, he underwent more surgeries and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

His application for financial help was denied. Only people who got hurt within 96 hours of September 11 could receive money from the first victims compensation fund set up by Congress. Feal was injured about 120 hours after the attacks.

That timing transformed his life. The patriot and Army veteran refused to accept the terms the government had laid down. He worked to change them, making a name for himself in Washington and setting up the FealGood Foundation to help anyone hurt or made sick by September 11 to get health insurance and other benefits.

Donate: Help ailing 9/11 responders by giving to the FealGood Foundation

“The guy that could help”
Feal felt he had to help other responders, many of whom had families and were facing financial ruin. The person who inspired him, though, had little to do with the 9/11 victims. In 2003, after a particularly rough day of therapy, he was eating at a McDonald’s. There, he saw a father walk in with two young daughters, one of whom was mentally disabled.

“I was watching this girl who was just enjoying life. Couldn’t make conversation, yet she was having a conversation with her father and sister,” he recalls. “But to watch her get her mouth above the straw just to have a sip of her drink, probably took 5 or 10 minutes. And I’m saying to myself, ‘This girl loves life. She doesn’t know any better. She was born without a choice, and she’s not complaining.’ And I’m saying to myself, ‘I have a choice. I lived a good 34 years before my life was changed.’ And since that day, I’ve never felt sorry for myself [or] complained.”

He became known as “the guy that could help.” He and other ailing responders showed up at Social Security or workers compensation hearing, to urge the judges and lawyers to grant the victim benefits. The tactics were “kind of thuggish and kind of caveman-ish at best,” he admitted, but they worked. People were dying. “I’ll never apologize to anybody when it comes to human life. You do what it takes to get the job done.”

He used the same “thuggish” style to get Congress to approve the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act — a $4.3 billion measure expanding the pool of people eligible to receive money for September 11-related injuries or losses. The president signed the bill on January 2. It’s not perfect, Feal says, but it’s better than nothing.

Another date
Of the five dates tattooed on his back, the last is 5/1/11: “the day Osama bin Laden was removed from this earth,” he says. The death didn’t give him closure, though, because September 11 responders keep dying.

At the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, Feal showed no signs of slowing down in his goal to help everyone affected by the attacks. He’s working at the request of Senator Jay Rockefeller to create a public-safety broadband network that could be used to help first responders communicate during a national emergency. He may run for office. Despite physical and mental pain, he thinks September 11 altered his life for the better.

“I lost half a foot,” Feal says, “but I grew an extra heart.”

This excerpt is from an article that originally appeared on 9/11 Remembered.

A former reporter for the Associated Press and ABC News, Laura E. Davis writes about gay rights and the Supreme Court. She is one of the social media editors for Yahoo! News. Follow her on Twitter at @laura_ynews.