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Denis Leary On 9/11 20 Years Later, The Ongoing Pain Firefighters Suffer & ‘Rescue Me’ Secrets

Editor’s note: One in a series of stories tied to the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

“There’s a bittersweet aspect to watching the war that was started in response to that attack come to an end 20 years later, because the war that these firefighters are still fighting against that day won’t end until their lives are over,” says Denis Leary of the legacy of 9/11 that still afflicts many first responders decades later.

Having started his Leary Firefighters Foundation in 2000 following the death of his cousin Jerry Lucey and five others battling a blaze in Worcester, MA, the Rescue Me co-creator and star long has been an advocate for the fallen and their families. In 2001, the LFF began the Fund for New York’s Bravest to financially assist the brood of the 343 firefighters who perished that day when the Twin Towers were horrifically brought down.

Always forthright, Leary spoke with me about the 20 years since 9/11, those we lost then and those we are losing now to cancer and other diseases from the toxic site of Ground Zero. He also talked of how the Leary Firefighters Foundation is commemorating the anniversary this year and the ongoing work it does to support firehouses across the nation.

DEADLINE: With all the work your Firefighters Foundation, which I know was born out of a very personal loss to you, has done, what is the legacy of 9/11 to you?

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DENIS LEARY: We’re hyperaware of this date every year and have been of the 20th as it approaches. As you know, my cousin was a firefighter in Worcester, Massachusetts, who died, that’s how I started the foundation, in 1999. So it’s one of the things that I always think about, and we’ve been thinking about it a lot in the last 20 years. It’s not just that there’s a number of legacy firefighters like in the case of my cousin in the Worcester Fire Department there were six men who died in that fire, but now there’s seven sons of those six Worcester firefighters who are firefighters on that same department. In my cousin’s case, his oldest son actually serves on the same truck that he did out of the same firehouse.

In New York, my foundation, we’re actually doing a social media documentary piece about this and the latest episode about this comes out Friday on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. In New York, there’s a bunch of kids whose fathers died on 9/11 who are now firefighters and have been, in many cases, for several years — one of whom is already serving out of his father’s house on the truck and a woman named Jo Smith, who is really an amazing story, who’s about to serve on the same truck as her dad did on 9/11. So we’re very aware of that it literally has been carried on directly within these families and these departments – that’s a big part of any legacy to me.

DEADLINE: For many, the end of U.S. troops fighting the war in Afghanistan late last month has proved to be a bitter pill after all the loss and sacrifice — what do you think of that?

LEARY: Well, in New York’s case, and Jon Stewart has made people aware of this a lot, you know we’ve lost 255 guys since 9/11. Three hundred forty-three firefighters died on 9/11, and since then, because of 9/11-related cancers, 255 men have died. And that number keeps accelerating the further we get away from 9/11, so that event is still killing people. So there’s a bittersweet aspect to watching the war that was started in response to that attack come to an end 20 years later, because the war that these firefighters are still fighting against that day won’t end until their lives are over.

DEADLINE: It took a very long time for that to be addressed …

LEARY: Yeah, but the great thing about Jon’s work, which paid off in a big way, is now medically these men are looked after.

I can’t even explain to you the extent of how far this goes. Guys that used to work on Rescue Me, who were firefighters at the time in the FDNY who survived 9/11, since these events of cancer have gotten more help as time went on. Now, if you get a cold, if you get a headache, if you get a backache, if your arm hurts, you go to the doctor. They want you to go to the doctor right away because that could be the beginning of something related to 9/11 cancer. But all those medical bills, all the experts are there now, you don’t have to worry about it. And once you feel you might have an issue, you’re going to be taken care of as best as possible.

But you know. on a personal basis, I mean, just a couple of years ago we lost a guy who survived 9/11.

DEADLINE: Really?

LEARY: Yeah, he worked on Rescue Me, Lieutenant Eddie Meehan.

He was about to retire from the department, he was working as a drill instructor in his spare time down at the training academy to train new firefighters, he was in tip-top shape. He was diagnosed towards the end of the summer and six months later was dead. I mean, you watch something like that and it takes you right back to that day, it takes you right back to what happened. And that will continue now until, like I said, until you know these guy’s lives are all over. And that’s why when I look at something about the Afghanistan war coming to an end, it’s never going to really end for these guys and these families, so that’s the most present aspect of it to me, you know?

DEADLINE: Every year on this anniversary, the horror of 9/11 returns to the spotlight, but what do you think it actually means to the city in 2021?

LEARY: Oh, geez, I don’t know.

Because of the confluence of events, like you said with the war coming to an end and the 20th anniversary standing in front of us, I hope that the perspective people can gain is of what I just spoke about in terms of these firefighters. As frontline workers these were, you know, the people who responded on the frontlines that day and they’ve responded on the frontlines during the Covid, situation, any situation in specific, firefighters in general do, but specifically the FDNY is on the frontlines of anything that happens in that city.

I just think it would be nice if people remember, No. 1, that they continue to do it no matter what the issue is terrorist attack, pandemic, it’s just what they do for a living.

And No. 2, 20 years later, my foundation is still supplying fire departments across the country with increased technology and training, buying equipment and vehicles for the department. But again this department, the FDNY, like a lot of fire departments around the country, is still struggling financially. They’re still facing budget cuts, and the pandemic made it worse. The job of being a firefighter is somewhat safer technologically speaking in terms of equipment than it used to be 20 years ago, but it’s much more dangerous too.

DEADLINE: How so?

LEARY: The fires burn hotter and they burn more dangerous chemicals. And when you talk about wildfires, it’s never been worse. I mean, it’s insane. And the job, they still take the job, they still do the job, and that’s what I want people to remember.

What they did that day it was a great tragedy, but it was also the greatest rescue operation in the history of the fire department.

The number of people who died that day was tragic, but it could’ve been so much worse except for these firefighters who pulled up and ran upstairs, you know, to save people. So, I think about what those guys did that day and what they do every day that’s the amazing thing to me, you know?

DEADLINE: Do you feel that as time has passed, 9/11 has faded?

LEARY: I guess the best response to that is if you knew people who died, first of all it makes it a different experience if you were old enough to witness it and respond emotionally, I guess, right?

DEADLINE: Yeah.

LEARY: But if you knew people who died and by the way people who you thought were dead but you found out were alive a couple of days later or 24 hours later, whatever it was.

DEADLINE: Yeah, I had both those experiences.

LEARY: So, that earmarks it emotionally for you, so that’s in you, right? So, to me it’s like when I talk about my cousin if I talk about him for too long, you know, it’s you know scratching the surface. It takes me right back to December of 1999 when he died, you know?

When I think of 9/11, as you know, I was on the street so I saw the buildings come down live with my eyes. But what I really remember is those hours afterward trying to find and get contact with the firefighters I knew, you know? And then in my case, like, the most bizarre thing was finding out the next day that a guy I knew was on the second plane. After finding out, you know, which firefighters that were missing then you find out a guy that you never expected to hear about, Ace Bailey, who was an ex-Boston Bruin, who actually had done work for a couple years at that point with my foundation. He was a coach for the LA Kings and he was on the second plane.

I just, even as we’re talking about it, can picture so many different things.

Funerals and how that fall was such a long wait you know day-by-day to find out if they located the remains of somebody, you know, all that stuff.

So, it makes me a little angry when they say stuff like that, I don’t really remember, it doesn’t mean that much to me, or that’s ancient history. You know, for me and for a lot of people, it never goes away; it’s just there. You know it’s below the surface, and if you access it too much you can get caught back up in the emotions very quickly, you know?

DEADLINE: Speaking of getting caught up in those emotions, Rescue Me was one of the first shows to address the aftermath of 9/11 in very personal terms. What’s your perspective on the show now in the context of this 20th anniversary?

LEARY: Well, I don’t go back and watch the show, and I know Peter Tolan doesn’t because that’s just the way we are. But you know, Peter and I were just together talking about another thing that we were working on and how Rescue Me comes up.

DEADLINE: What do you mean?

LEARY: it’s true for both of us and I know that the cast members, most of whom I keep in touch with, I hear the same stories from them. Wherever we go if you’re on another set, if you’re traveling through an airport, if you happened to be in a gas station a few days ago, you know somebody will come up and say, Oh, my God — Rescue Me.” Or they’ll come up and say, which is my favorite, they just call me Tommy Gavin.

DEADLINE: Why does it resonante after being off the air for 10 years?

LEARY: I think the reason that it resonates is because it’s authentic.

From the start I had been exposed to the firehouse culture through my cousin being a firefighter up in Worcester, but also one of my oldest friends was a firefighter in New York from the time we were in our early 20s. And you know he became the technical adviser, Terry Quinn, on Rescue Me and he folded in several guys out of his firehouse who were also helping us.

We had access not only to the old stories that I knew from these guys, but I was very connected to their firehouse at the time, so I was there the day after 9/11 and through that period. So I was pulling stuff from there; Peter was in that firehouse too. Also, while we were working on the set for seven years, these guys would work a shift, you know, for 24 hours and then come to work on Rescue Me without sleep the next morning, and they’d go, “You’re not going to believe what happened last night.” Whether it was a funny story or a dramatic fire, or a funny story in a fire or just an argument in the house. So a lot of the dramatic and comedic stuff that we got came from those guy’s personal lives and from events at the firehouse.

So we were able, with that access, to make the show sort of have a life of its own as a show. Now, some of the older fire department guys hated us because they thought we were giving away secrets. But we had access to those secrets because the younger generation, which was my generation, those guys were working on the show. I think that makes a world of difference in terms of why it has some lasting appeal.

DEADLINE: What are you going to do this year on September 11?

LEARY: I’m not going to go down to the site, if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve been down there on a couple of the anniversary dates before, but I did the 20th anniversary of my cousin’s death, that fire in Worcester, a couple of years ago, and, you know, it was very difficult.

In the end it was OK because there’s a lot of family there, and afterwards we all end up going out to dinner and then we spend the next day together. But you know, it’s really, really hard. And so this year by happenstance I’m going to be away from the city, which is fine. Because I just feel like emotionally that’s a safer place to be, and it just happened to be that you know work-wise that’s where I’m going to be anyways.

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