Lieutenant Anthony ‘Tony’ Zeoli spent nine months trying to find traces of people – alive or dead – among the rubble after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
He led the longest-serving volunteer unit on Ground Zero – Team Romeo, a squad staffed by 12 already-retired police officers who put on their uniforms again in a desperate bid to recover the 2,606 missing people (‘Romeo’ signified ‘R’ for ‘retired’).
Exactly 16 years later, he is opening up for the first time about the horrors they experienced, publishing a book called Rising From The Ashes.
But now, he and the surviving members of his unit are all suffering from a new kind of horror: cancers, PTSD, lung diseases, sleep apnea, digestive diseases and – in some cases – death, all as a result of inhaling the toxic cocktail of mercury, jet fuel, asbestos and more.
Tony, 66, cannot eat. After being diagnosed in around 2008 with skin cancer, sleep apnea and dysphasia – a brain disorder affecting speech – he developed gastroesophageal acid reflux disease (GERD), which required two throat surgeries. Neither went well, and it left his digestive system in a mess. He has now been on a soft diet for two years, which consists of soups, bananas and well-cooked vegetables. He has dropped 20 pounds, and his t-shirt hangs from his shoulders slightly. Since he has type 2 diabetes, he cannot drink the sugar- and protein-packed meal replacement shakes on trend at the moment. His doctor said it has reached the point that he needs to get a permanent feeding tube.
‘We were so determined to save as many people as we could. I was convinced there were people alive down there. In the beginning, nobody even went home. We worked day in, day out, we slept there. By October, we started going home for a couple of hours sleep, then we would come back. It was our duty, we needed to do it. But we had no idea what it was doing to us.
‘Now I just feel like a useless old man.’