Currently, the Northeast Director of the Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation, Jim Preston, 52, has been a volunteer firefighter at the South Windham Fire Department for more than 16 years.
He’s also a supervisor at Home Depot.
And he’s a man on a “mission” – to help those who rose to the occasion on one of the darkest days in U. S. history – the firefighters, 9/11 responders, Ground Zero workers and family members who have been stricken with cancer.
While the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks immediately killed thousands at the World Trade Center in New York, as well as more in Washington, D.C. and those aboard Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, more of those who came to their rescue are dying as well, mainly due to cancer and other diseases associated with the environment of Ground Zero.
The Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation, which has grown internationally to Australia and England, is working now to provide air purifiers for the homes of sick 9/ 11 responders and others involved.
Preston, has worked at the foundation for more than eight months. “We are losing, sometimes, up to three (responders) a week,” said Preston.
More than 1,000 Sept. 11 responders have died since the cleanup ended, he said.
Preston joined the Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation when its President Cindy Ell asked him if he’d be interested, at a press conference in Boston. “I couldn’t say no. How can you?” Preston recalled.
Preston lost his first wife to cancer when she was only 27, and then his mother three weeks later to the same disease.
Now he is joined by Cheryl Preston, his wife of 20 years, in this different kind of rescue effort. “We try to find these people and find out exactly what they need,” Preston said.
The foundation will help with anything from legal advice to finding them cheaper, better medications, Preston said.
Preston admits to feeling guilty, even today, for not going to Ground Zero right away. At the time, he was working for American Ambulance Services and couldn’t leave Connecticut immediately.
Many of his coworkers left right away, but Preston waited for his days off to go.
When Preston arrived, it was already the first weekend after the attacks. With his wife by his side, Preston went to as many firehouses as he could.
“I was freelancing and doing whatever I could to help,” said Preston. “You could see it in their eyes. It was a heartbreaking thing.”
To each firehouse he went to, Preston left a letter titled “Heavens Fire Department” in which he tries to make sense of the horrible events.
“In heaven of course there is a grand department,” says one of the letters. “This department is staffed with our Brothers and Sisters from all over the world. God, the ultimate Chief, knew this would be a tough transition so he needed the very best, and he called the FDNY.”
500 purifiers needed
The foundation has a list of 500 responders who need purifiers. Each costs $500. Made by the MagneGrip Group, they are hospital grade. They can even sense toxic chemical fumes in the air and break them down.
“What we are doing is all worthwhile,” Preston said. “This may extend someone’s life.”
Preston has another goal, and that is to get the Zadroga Act amended. The controversial federal bill was supposed to improve services and protection for 9/11 responders, but lacks coverage for cancer.
“We need to get these people the help that they need,” said Preston. He noted the bill covers carpal tunnel syndrome, but not cancer.
“We never hear about that bill or the responders anymore,” Preston said. “We are only 145 miles from Manhattan. This is terribly frustrating.”
His message to those responders in the Northeast whom he hasn’t found yet is to just sit tight – Preston will find you. “To the people out there, we love you and we aren’t going to leave any of you behind,” he said.
However, for all the foundation’s work, they are losing men and women on a weekly basis. Purifiers won’t save their lives, but they may add more time.
Preston said he and his wife attend the funerals of those who lose their battle with cancer.
“She’s incredible,” said Preston. At the last funeral they went to, he said, Cheryl Preston pulled her husband aside and told him that she loved him.
“She said, ‘I’m so glad you didn’t go (that day),’” Preston said, tears in his eyes. “‘I know you feel guilty.’”
The next step for Preston is to keep spreading the word. He has a couple of conferences lined up in New Hampshire and Massachusettsto get more people involved.
For more information about the Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation, visit www.ffcancer.org
Also, donations can be mailed to Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 2830, Wilmington, Del. 19805.
Questions? Call Jim Preston at (860) 617-7450.
Posted Jan. 22, 2012 as edited by HTNP.com Editor Brenda Sullivan
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