Her Husband Spent 9 Months Digging Through the Toxic Remains of the World Trade Center. She Won't Let the World Forget

While enduring a litany of treatments as the cancer spread through his body, Ray Pfeifer cajoled lawmakers in New York and Washington, D.C., from his wheelchair to secure benefits for 9/11 responders

Ray Pfeifer
Ray and Caryn Pfeifer. Photo: Courtesy of Caryn Pfeifer

Caryn Pfeifer admits she is not much of a public speaker. And she was happy to take a backseat to her husband, Ray Pfeifer, the vivacious New York City firefighter who, after developing stage 4 cancer linked to his time working amid the toxic fallout at ground zero, became renowned for his successful lobbying to get permanent health benefits for survivors of and responders to the 9/11 attacks.

“Everyone in the world knows Ray — everywhere you go,” Caryn, 57, tells PEOPLE. “You can go to another state and they would go, ‘Oh my God.’ They know his name because of what he did.”

After Ray died two years ago from complications from cancer, when he was 59, Caryn picked up the torch to do all she could to help other sick first responders, including public speaking.

“My work is continuing where Ray left off,” she says. “I am doing this because this is what Ray would want, and what I want to do: to help these guys.”

Lawmakers aren’t forgetting Ray either. On Monday, amid an ongoing push for more money to aid 9/11 responders and survivors, members of Congress named a new bill in recognition of Ray and the late 9/11 responders Luis Alvarez and James Zadroga, both N.Y.C. police detectives. The legislation, if passed, will insure long-term funding for the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

“They all worked so hard on this,” says Caryn, who lives in Hicksville, New York. “It’s such an honor and we’re so proud. It’s so beautiful.”

Ray Pfeifer
Caryn and Ray Pfeifer (center) and other 9/11 first responders in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Caryn Pfeifer

‘Ray Suffered, but He Was Strong’

The pain started in 2009. But, at first, all that seemed wrong with Ray was his leg, which caused him some trouble. He limped. Then an X-ray revealed the truth. A large tumor had disintegrated his hip and pelvis, and he had stage 4 kidney cancer.

While enduring a litany of treatments as the cancer spread through his body — and suffering a heart attack due to a weakening of his heart from chemotherapy — Ray cajoled lawmakers in New York and Washington, D.C., from his wheelchair to secure benefits for 9/11 responders.

Always by his side were comedian Jon Stewart, fellow responder John Feal and others who had worked in the aftermath of the attacks.

“They are my family and never left Ray, and they’ve never left my side,” Caryn says. “Ray suffered a lot. But he was so strong.”

It was the insidious spread of Ray’s cancer that now motivates Caryn to organize health seminars for responders at the Nassau County police union office that she managers and get them signed up for monitoring with the World Trade Center Health Program.

“Ray had a pain in his hip. He thought it was old age — and it wasn’t,” says Caryn.

Ray Pfeifer
Ray Pfeifer with from left, NY congressman Peter King, Jon Stewart, son Terence (an FDNY fireman), Caryn, and daughter Taylor. Courtesy of Caryn Pfeifer

On May 30, Caryn addressed a crowd gathered in downtown Manhattan at the World Trade Center site to dedicate the new 9/11 Memorial Glade honoring rescue and recovery workers who grew sick or died after responding to the Sept. 11 attacks.

After the collapse of the twin towers, Caryn said that day, Ray “spent the next nine months searching and digging at ground zero without being asked, without being told and without thinking about the consequences.”

“But there were consequences,” she continued. “There was illness and pain and death, and for Ray that meant his guys and their families were in trouble.”

A few FDNY firefighters have created The Ray Pfeifer Foundation to help sick first responders with health supplies not covered by insurance.

“I am so proud of it,” Caryn says. “If people need a full-time aide or a lift, they will pay for it and be there within hours.”

While Ray’s work lives on, so too do the problems he spent years fighting. Experts say he was one of some 40,000 people with a condition linked to 9/11, including thousands with respiratory illnesses and mental health issues.

“A horror,” Caryn calls it. And not one to be forgotten.

“Our guys have suffered mentally and with sicknesses,” she says. “Our 9/11 families here will never be the same.”

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