Mayor Bill de Blasio awards the Key to the City to former FDNY firefighter and long-time Zadroga advocate Ray Pfeifer during a Zadroga Act celebration at City Hall on Saturday, January 9. The event was attended by Mr. Pfeifer's family, comedian Jon Stewart, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro, Congressmen Jerrold Nadler and Peter King, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and other invited guests.

Story highlights

Ray Pfeifer partnered up with comedian Jon Stewart to lobby for the health care coverage for 9/11 first responders

Pfeifer was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer that was linked to his time spent at ground zero

New York CNN  — 

It was a “good-cop, bad-cop” approach that a retired New York City firefighter and a former “Daily Show” host used on politicians when they lobbied for years for a bill that would provide health care to September 11 first responders.

“My job there is to have the camera and embarrass people,” said Jon Stewart, who has been an outspoken supporter of the bill and worked with Ray Pfeifer for years.

But for Pfeifer, it was his “grace” and “empathy” that won politicians on both sides of the aisle to sign on to the bill in 2011, Stewart said.

On Saturday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio honored Pfeifer, a “former firefighter and long-time Zadroga advocate,” with a key to New York City “for his work to pass the Zadroga Bill providing health care to 9/11 first responders, survivors, and recovery workers,” the mayor’s office said in a tweet.

The Zadroga Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2011, expanded health coverage and compensation to first responders and those individuals who developed 9/11-related health problems.

The bill was named after James Zadroga, a deceased New York Police Department detective who had worked in the toxic plume at ground zero.

“It’s a fight that should not have to have been fought. Supporting our heroes should be self-evident,” de Blasio said at the ceremony Saturday.

Free from that ‘horrible, pervasive worry’

Because of Ray’s leadership, de Blasio said, survivors “get to wake up in the morning and not have that horrible, pervasive worry about their future. They don’t have to wonder what’s going to happen next to them and their families because they did the right thing when it was their moment to stand up,” de Blasio said.

Pfeifer was one of those people who stood up.

For a week after September 11, Pfeifer slept in his fire truck near ground zero, de Blasio said. He spent the next eight months scouring through the debris.

“People asked him why he stayed. His answer was painful but simple: to find his friends,” de Blasio recounted.

Pfeifer joined the FDNY in 1987 and was a member of Engine 40 Ladder 35 during September 11, which lost 12 of its men, according to the company’s website.

He comes from a family devoted to public service. His father was a volunteer firefighter, and his son, who was just 10 on September 11, 2011, is a member of an FDNY EMS station, de Blasio said.

Pfeifer’s daughter one day hopes to join the NYPD, de Blasio added.

‘We’re still sick from terrorists’

Pfeifer was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer that was linked to his time spent at ground zero, but his efforts in Washington continued.

“We got something done that I never would have thought would have gotten done,” Pfeifer said.

“We dealt with people who didn’t really get it. We held it to them about never forgetting. We told them, ‘We’re still dying from terrorists. We’re still sick from terrorists.’ They started to get it,” Pfeifer said of politicians.

“I was just the poster boy … but everybody did something,” he said.

“The key to the city, it’s a symbol of trust,” Stewart said at the ceremony. “I think if you gave it to me, you’d go to sleep, I’d steal the Chrysler Building. But Ray, you come back in the next morning, everything is where you left it, the dishes are done, the streets are plowed. He’s the best.”

“He is a great example to all of us about how to live our lives with grace and selflessness,” he added.

In December, Congress passed the Zadroga Act extension, which extends the health program coverage to 2090.

More than 33,000 first responders and survivors are living with illnesses or injuries related to the attack, according to a release by Congress following the extension.

94 NYPD police officers and 110 FDNY firefighters have died from 9/11-related injuries in the years since the attack, the release said.

Pfeifer has said he will donate his key to the September 11th Memorial Museum.

CNN’s Ted Barrett and Dana Bash contributed to this report.