NEW YORK (FOX 5 NY) - Retired FDNY Lt. Michael O’Connell considers himself one of the lucky ones. He was a probationary fireman and only 25 years old on September 11, 2001 but still remembers like it was yesterday.
"Even though I was young, very naive and not really knowing the magnitude of how big of a job it actually was, I knew that something significant, especially when the second plane had hit, this was a terrorist attack and it was something that we were going to need to all be there," he said.
O’Connell worked the pile in the days, weeks and months following the attacks. An autoimmune disease known as Sarcoidosis forced him to retire in 2007.
"I’m still fortunate to have today because there’s so many that don’t."
He has made it his mission to push for continued healthcare and compensation for the 9/11 community. What upsets him the most is that in just a matter of time, the number of deaths from 9/11 related illnesses is expected to outnumber victims lost in the attacks.
"Moving forward and still seeing people getting sick," he said. "We’re going to continue to work for them, be there for them even if it’s a shoulder to cry on because more is coming, just know we’ll be there for you."
In the past, Lt. O’Connell has spent the September 11 anniversary with his brothers in Ozone Park. This year, he will be one of the guest speakers during the sunrise ceremony at Point Lookout. He plans to send a message of strength and unity that still resonates with him 18 years later.
"We’re Americans," he said. "You’re going to attack us. We’re getting back up. You’re not going to keep us down. There’s no way."