America Remembers: Living with 9/11 Illness

Tags: Currents 9/11, Brooklyn, FDNY, NYPD, September 11th

By Tim Harfmann

Eighteen years later, September 11 is an emotional day for NYPD Lieutenant Chris Phelan.

“It’s a very solemn day and a day of remembering,” he said. “Everybody says we’ll never forget.”

Chris attended a ceremony at Manhattan’s 24th precinct, where he remembered those who lost their lives on 9/11, but particularly thinking about those who have died from related illnesses — like his older brother, Thomas.

The 45-year-old lost his battle with lung cancer in March 2018 caused by breathing in the dark cloud of debris.

On 9/11, Thomas was steering ferries as a captain for the Circle Line.

When the nation came under attack, he sailed toward Lower Manhattan.

“He assisted with the FDNY in bringing personnel over to Ground Zero, then helping with the evacuation,” said Chris.

Thomas transported hundreds to safety as part of one of the largest evacuation efforts on record.

Two years later, the ferry captain became a firefighter, serving nearly a decade before becoming a pilot in the marine division.

But in January 2018, Thomas fell ill. What he thought was a just a cough turned out to be cancer.

“It was unbelievable when somebody that healthy would get cancer, that we automatically thought he’s going to beat this,” Chris added.

Thomas was a devout Catholic and attended Mass at St. Michael’s Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. That is also where his funeral was held.

Through his illness, Thomas had faith.

“I think it did help him. I think it did keep him strong. I’m sure he had times of doubt or worry; but I think he handled it better than all of us,” said Chris.

But just as Thomas had faith — now Chris has faith.

As a rookie police officer, Chris worked on ‘the pile’ in the months following 9/11.

He’s worried about his health and goes to the doctor every six months.

“It’s definitely something that’s in the back of my mind every day. Maybe if my brother didn’t pass away, maybe it would be less,” Chris said of the post-9/11 illness.

But he continues to serve in the NYPD, knowing Thomas is watching over him.

“I do have faith that I’ll see him again, and I definitely know he’s in heaven.”