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More than five years have passed since John Feal arrived in lower Manhattan on the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks to help in the recovery effort and, as he drives toward ground zero, he's starting to sweat.
Happens every time he returns to the intersection of Chambers and West streets, just blocks from where the towers fell and where he worked as a demolition supervisor for five days until a falling eight-ton steel beam crushed his left foot.
"Boy, am I hot!" he shouts.
"That's funny. I'm cold," says Chris Baumann, a disabled NYPD officer who suffered severe injuries as a result of the attacks. He grips his thighs as Feal drives past the post where Baumann worked as a traffic cop; the street corner where he heard the first plane hit; the sidewalk where he landed after getting tossed half a block when the debris came crashing down. The blow left him with smashed discs in his spine, as well as damaged nerves in his right leg and left arm. His superiors refused to let him return to the WTC site after 24 hours on the job.
Feal and Baumann met in 2002 at a now defunct 9/11 support group. Feal, 40, has had surgery on his foot more than two dozen times and still walks with a lopsided gait. Baumann suffers a host of permanent ailments. He often forgets the names of his two sons, ages 13 and 11, or the phone numbers of his relatives, or the directions to his Lindenhurst, Long Island, home. Blinded by the caustic dust for months after 9/11, he still cannot read or drive at night. His doctors keep extracting tiny threads of fiberglass from his eyelids. And then there are the pre-cancerous tumors in his lungs that his doctors link to the WTC toxins. His breathing capacity now equals that of a 60-year-old; he is 44.
"It's always so emotional for us to come here," Feal says.
The two are barreling through Manhattan streets in Feal's Ford Expedition, which features, in big letters on the rear window:
"9-11-01 First Responder Now Advocate. Be a Hero and a Help."
It's the mobile unit of the Feal Good Foundation, which Feal started last fall by convincing businesses to donate goods to ailing ground zero workersan extended toilet seat for someone with cancer, say, or a roof for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. Recently, he's raised $12,000 from everyday folks as well as Hollywood types like Michael Moore (donation: $1,000 in children's toys plus undisclosed dollars) and Michael Shamberg, who produced the blockbuster World Trade Center (donation: $500).
Today, Feal and Baumann are heading to see Terry Graves, who volunteered for the Red Cross after 9/11 and who has languished on her sofa for the last three years, paralyzed by depression. They've packed the Ford with boxes of foodcans of tuna and pineapple, cartons of pasta and cereal. They've cut a check for $200. And now, after leaving lower Manhattan, they're speeding up the West Side Highway bound for Inwood, where Graves has lived since 1999. The two are joined by Baumann's wife of 20 years, Anne Marie, who serves on the group's board and who wears a red T-shirt with a heart that reads Feal Good Foundation.
"I'll stay in the car," her husband says, staring at their destination on West 207th Street.
"No, you can do this," Anne Marie replies, rubbing his shoulders and coaxing him from the car. Unlike Feal, who has visited Manhattan two dozen times for 9/11 events, Baumann has ventured into the city only twice since the attacks. He, too, spent several years holed up in his home.
"Oh, Chris! You made it out of the house," exclaims Graves, who is 46 and bespectacled and plainly relieved to meet her visitors. She gives Baumann a hug, then announces that she, too, left her tiny one-bedroom apartment just yesterday.
"I walked on Third Avenue for six blocks by myself," she says.
Before September 11, Graves worked as a word processor for Deutsche Bank, whose downtown headquarters is so contaminated by the toxic dust that it has remained closed, shrouded in netting. Recently the city and state began demolishing the building, floor by floor. On 9/11, Graves had the afternoon shift, so she didn't witness the attacks. But she spent four months around the pile, traipsing from the nearby Red Cross relief center to Tent City and back, offering herself as a Spanish interpreter. Not long after her volunteer work, she started experiencing panic attacks whenever she went downtown. City life terrified herthe tall skyscrapers, the roaring subways, the countless backpacks. By early 2004, she couldn't leave her house. She stayed on the sofa until February of this year, when she discovered Feal's foundation. Anne Marie hooked her up with the Bellevue Hospital WTC program, which monitors citizens affected by 9/11. Doctors there have since diagnosed her with depression and PTSD.
"Listen," Feal says, "you'd better get your ass in gear, because you will have to leave this apartment again." He waves a T-shirt with a decal of the Statue of Liberty driving a '57 Chevy, underneath the words Doo-Wop Makes You "Feal Good." It's a reference to his first benefit concert for 9/11 workers and volunteers, planned for July 21.
"You need to get out and function and go to this concert," he says. "There are other people out there and you need to hear their stories."
Graves lowers her head. "Don't you get the sense that people want 9/11 to go away?"
"Chris knows that, don't you?" Anne Marie interjects, trying to coax a silent Baumann. He sits in a rocking chair, zoned out. His wife again prompts him: "Chris, do you get support from your family?"
Baumann shakes his head and says: "I come from a family of cops, and they all tell me, 'Get over it.' "
But there are some things you cannot get over, he has said. Like the sound of bodies falling from the towers. The sight of people bleeding from open wounds. Or the woman whose right arm was slit from her shoulder to her wrist. Or that other woman who was severed in half.
"All my friends at the precinct stopped talking to me," Baumann continues. "They don't want to hear about 9/11."
Graves then turns to him. "Did you try to off yourself?"
"So did I," she confides. "It sucks."
After an hour of conversationabout medications, about the responders who need lung and kidney and bone marrow transplants, about the media outlets that never cover the dying respondersBaumann rubs his face. It's a signal to go home.
The four exchange hugs. Then, as the others leave, Graves says, with a sigh: "You don't know how fantastic that was. Finally, I don't feel like such a freak."