Retired NY firefighter overcomes two battles with cancer caused by toxic smoke from ground zero

Jerry Sanford spent 30 years as a New York City firefighter before he retired to Naples. But, it was an FDNY helmet that brought him back to the Big Apple after finding the antique hanging on the wall of a local fire station. 

Sanford returned the helmet to the South Bronx firehouse on the morning on Sept. 10, 2001 – the day before the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history. 

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Sanford, now 84 years old, has battled cancer twice – and won. 

"It's a dreadful, terrible disease," he said.

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Sanford was in the airport on September 11, 2001 when all flights were grounded. He managed to get a rental car and learned the rest of the horrors that were unfolding from the radio and rest stop TVs. 

"All I saw on the television screen was that horrendous cloud drifting from Manhattan across Brooklyn into Queens," said Sanford.

Sanford was back in the city six days after Sept. 11, stepping in to help the FDNY. 

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"I would have went down there and dug without question. But I knew what I could do, I could deal with the media," Sanford said.

He spent the last nine years of his career as the FDNY press secretary, helping coordinate interviews and shoots with the media, covering the trauma and tragedy. 

Sanford spent six weeks helping at ground zero, where the haze from smoke and debris were intense. That six weeks he spent working in the toxic smoke and dust was enough to cause cancer in both his lungs and a reoccurrence in his chest years later. 

Experts at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa treated Sanford both times. Sanford is counted among the 118,474 first responders and survivors enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program.

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Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, and thousands of survivors and first responders never fully recovered. The toxic dust at ground zero has caused physical and mental health issues that continue to claim the lives of those who were there.

"We're still losing people 21 years later," said Sanford.

The death count from 9/11 conditions now tops the lives lost that day, and cancer has killed almost half.