Ground Zero first responder fights daily battle against impacts of toxic smoke

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Nearly 18 years removed, the smell of smoke still takes Garrett Lindgren back to Ground Zero. He described the smell, comparing it to smoke from a wood stove on a particularly damp evening.

“It was a lot of hazardous materials in the smoke, and unfortunately it was the smell of death, and it permeated that area for months,” Lindgren said.

For three of those months, Lindgren -- a firefighter with the New York Fire Department’s Rescue Three Squad -- was in the thick of it, searching for remains. His own safety was second to the rescue effort.

"We had no breathing protection, nor did we really think about that," Lindgren said.

But it's something on the minds of thousands of first responders now, as many battle illnesses related to toxin exposure from working at Ground Zero.

Lindgren is one of them. Chronic headaches, chronic sinusitis, reflux, chronic sleep apnea, and toxic neuropathy are just a few of the illnesses he struggles with.

"The neuropathy is becoming a real issue now," he explained. "Sometimes I lose my balance, and I don't have good dexterity anymore. My legs and my arms are always tingling."

Last Friday, the House of Representatives passed a bill to reauthorize the compensation fund for first responder victims of the attacks, after comedian Jon Stewart lambasted lawmakers for not moving quickly enough to replenish it.


"They responded in five seconds," Stewart said tearfully, during his June 11 testimony. "They did their jobs, courage, grace, tenacity, humility. Eighteen years later, do yours."

Lindgren believes Stewart was the main reason the bill was passed Friday.

"Stewart really went above and beyond every chance he got," he said. "I don't know if it would have passed without him."

He knows it's too late for friends like Dan Heglund, who died from throat cancer in 2014. Heglund was 59.

"We were firefighters in the Bronx for nine years," Lindgren said. "He was diagnosed with cancer of the throat in 2012, and he knew he wasn't going to survive."

Though nearly two decades have passed since the attacks, he hopes the public remembers others still fighting.

"I've got the best health I can hope for," he said. "There are lots of folks who were there that are sicker than I am."