Westchester County unveiled its 9/11 First Responders Memorial on the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks to honor those who have died from illnesses related to their recovery efforts at Ground Zero.
After three years of planning, the newest memorial at Kensico Dam Plaza in Valhalla, two gray stones headlined with the words — courage, honor, humility and sacrifice — was introduced. It is located in the shadow of the county’s 9/11 memorial The Rising at Kensico Dam Plaza.
There are 41 names of Westchester residents that comprise the first set of responders who have died from illnesses linked to their work cleaning up the debris at the World Trade Center site from Sept. 11, 2001, until the task was completed on May 30, 2002.
Matthew McCauley, a retired New York City police officer and co-chair of the Memorial Committee with NYPD Sgt. Peter Woods, said they wanted a memorial that was simple, understated and represented the first responders who not only gave their lives 20 years ago but who risked their lives in the aftermath of the attacks. Woods died earlier this year and is the first name listed on the memorial.
“When Peter and I worked together, he always said the same thing and we had the same conversations – we have to get this right,” McCauley said during the county’s annual 9/11 ceremony. “It’s about the families and we may be up there someday. It wasn’t about Peter; it’s not about me. It’s about the families.”
Many of the names on the memorial were firefighters, not just for the FDNY, but from paid and volunteer departments across Westchester, as well as New York City police officers and several Westchester officers. Also on the list are two construction workers.
County Executive George Latimer, who announced the plans for the memorial at the county’s 9/11 ceremonies in 2018, said the firefighters and police officers who raced into the burning towers that would collapse shortly after they were struck by two of the hijacked airplanes was extraordinary. But the same must be said of those who worked at Ground Zero in the months following the attacks.
“There are other men and women, who after that incident, responded to their duty and did it voluntarily day and night on that pile,” Latimer said. “They exposed themselves to chemicals that they did not know was in it. In fairness, they weren’t told. They’d come home at night to their spouses and their families having done their job as Americans and putting their life in jeopardy.”
A study published in 2019 that tracked World Trade Center responders found a sharply higher rate of cancer, particularly for prostate, thyroid and blood cancers. The illnesses can take years and sometimes decades to develop.
Members of police and fire departments and ambulance corps throughout the county helped illuminate the Eternal Light, which will shine over the memorial around the clock as a testament to the sacrifice exhibited by those who are honored.
McCauley said there is room for additional names and additional walls to be erected in the coming years. By next year’s September 11 ceremony, he expects the number of names to double, and it may even reach 100 as more families step forward after learning of the memorial and others succumb to illnesses.
In fact, 9/11 has taken more first responders since the attacks 20 years ago than the number of people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, McCauley said.
“This is the first year we had it and we’re still catching up,” he said.
Last Friday, the day before the 9/11 ceremony, family members of the 41 responders were invited to the memorial for a private unveiling.