STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
First responders at ground zero got the news they were hoping for. A House committee unanimously approved renewed funding for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. That vote came after testimony by comedian Jon Stewart, who is an advocate for first responders. Stewart noted that first responders filled the room of a congressional hearing, but many lawmakers did not show up to hear from them.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JON STEWART: Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity - time.
INSKEEP: First responders say the fund has failed to fully support those with serious health problems.
Let's talk this through with John Feal, who was at the hearing and was also at ground zero in New York City. After 9/11, he worked as a demolition supervisor. We should note that part of his left foot was amputated after a piece of steel crushed his leg. Mr. Feal, welcome to the program. Good morning.
JOHN FEAL: Thank you for having me - big fan.
INSKEEP: Thank you very much for listening - appreciate it. What made you want to come to Washington for this hearing?
FEAL: I've been going to Washington longer than anybody. I started this when it wasn't sexy. I've been doing it for 15 years, 278 trips to D.C. Jon Stewart's a dear friend, and I've been working with him for a decade. I'm the one who pays for these trips. I put them together. I hand-picked those who testified. And I took Jon's testimony away from him before that hearing started.
INSKEEP: What do you mean took his testimony away from him?
FEAL: Well, Jon had a prepared written statement. And if Jon would've read that statement, we wouldn't be here talking today.
INSKEEP: Oh, you are saying that you told him, just speak from the heart. You took away his notes.
FEAL: That is correct. You know, Jon's at his best when he's articulating our pain and suffering and agony. And from the heart, it would've been - it was a lot better than coming from a piece of paper. And again, we wouldn't be here today if he spoke.
INSKEEP: We played just a little clip, but I saw the full version of this. It was kind of an Internet sensation. I think he talked for about nine minutes, apparently, without any notes.
FEAL: Yeah. Well, Jon Stewart could talk for hours.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) I guess it's what he did for a living, once upon a time.
FEAL: You know, I've worked with Jon in and out of the 9/11 community for a decade now, working with veterans and stuff like that. And he is the most humble, sincere, genuine, caring, compassionate man I've ever met. Somebody with those kind of resources and that platform who's so low-maintenance, who wants to be embedded in the teams that I take to D.C. with us - I've been humbled. I don't have a role model. I don't have a hero. I don't have a father figure. And he's only a couple of years older than me, but he fits that model.
INSKEEP: Well, you got a unanimous vote out of this House committee. It goes to the full House, still has to go to the Senate, so there's a ways to go here. And I wonder if you can explain one thing. It surely is obvious to you - it may not be evident to everyone - it's been 18 years since 9/11. Why is it that people continue to need help and support from the government after 18 years?
FEAL: Well, let's tackle one at a time. We've been at this for almost two decades now because of poor leadership and bad politics, tribal loyalties. Second, those who got sick from 9/11 aren't sick yet. Everybody's immune system's different. The latency periods on these illnesses are different. And, listen; we were affected by thousands of toxins in the air. The absorption through the nose, mouth and skin made these men and women, uniform and nonuniform, sick. Many have passed away. Many of them have illnesses that they'll never recover from. And more and more people are going to die in the near future. We've lost over 2,000 people now since 9/11 from their illnesses.
So whether it was Jon Stewart or Luis Alvarez or Lieutenant Mike O'Connell telling their testimonies in front of Congress the other day, if that didn't tug at your heartstring, then you're not human. I'm not a crier, but I think the Internet got to see John Feal cry pretty good on - the other day. And I'm not embarrassed about it because, well, you know, Luis Alvarez is a dear friend, and I'm going to be going to his funeral in the near future.
INSKEEP: I'm sorry to hear that. Just very briefly, this bill would fund a trust fund through 2090. Is that enough?
FEAL: Well, listen; let me take you back really quick. In 2010, we...
INSKEEP: Just a few seconds.
FEAL: We got the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act passed in 2010. In 2015, we got it renewed on the health care side for 75 years. On the compensation side, we only got five more years. Now it expires in 2020. It's not going to make it till then because it's going to run out of money. We want the VCF, the Victims Compensation Fund, to run - coincide with the health care.
And then we want to be left alone, and we want Congress in the Senate to urge us - sense our urgency and then basically just leave us alone. Listen; I've been beating up Congress in the Senate for 15 years now. I don't like them, and I don't want them to like me. I don't - They're not our friends. So what? We got 320 co-sponsors in the House - big deal.
INSKEEP: John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, which supports 9/11 responders.
FEAL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.