In particular he wants to persuade his former colleagues in the fire department of the merits of the program that’s run by the non-profit Downtown Medical near Ground Zero.
“We knew we were taking in a tremendous amount of toxins down there,” he said of the grueling months’-long rescue and recovery effort.
Higgins, though, said he faces an “uphill battle against bias,” because of the Fulton Street’s center links with screen actor Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology.
The much-decorated Higgins, who worked in Brooklyn with Ladder Co. 111, one of the busiest in the city, trained half of all those who responded to the call on Sept. 11, 2001.
Higgins was one of four fire-fighting brothers. “Tim, we lost on 9/11; he was 20-plus years on the job,” he said. Another brother is a policeman. His sister is the toughest, he said, laughing, being the oldest. Their father is a retired fire captain who served 35 years after leaving the armed services at the end of the Korean war. “He’s a total legend on the job; I’m humbled having him as a father,” Higgins said.
Higgins was kept going by adrenalin during the rescue-and-recovery effort, but a relatively small fire later triggered a life-threatening asthma attack. Thereafter, he couldn’t survive without multiple steroidal inhalers. He was fatigued and was sleeping poorly. His firefighting days were over.
“I had a great doctor who helped me to live with the medication and was resigned to the fact that I might not feel that great, because I always felt that I was better off than the guys we were digging out,” he said.
Then he heard about the Downtown Medical detoxification program that was supported by Cruise. It allowed rescue workers to avail of its $5,200 month-long treatment for free. He was put in touch with Jim Woodworth, its director of operations.
“The characteristics of the program I already believed in prior to ever meeting Jim; I was already a big sauna steam-room guy as a kid growing up,” he said. “We built one in our firehouse because we knew that flushing the system was good for the body. This program brought it to another level and gained my interest, and restored my quality of life. It gave me a lot of health back. And I’m not on any lung drugs.”
The treatment, which typically lasts 28 days, uses exercise, sauna bathing and a regimen of vitamins and minerals.
“I’m a true believer in the program and we’re trying to collaborate with those that don’t believe,” he said.
The principles of detoxification used at the center were first expounded by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, of which Cruise is a member.
The FDNY is wary of a religious group that has attracted a great deal of controversy and has been labeled a cult by some. Deputy Commissioner Francis X. Gribbon told the Daily News that Downtown Medical “is not a bona-fide detox program. It should not be a substitute for the medical treatment that our doctors have advised. We don’t endorse it.”
Dr. David Prezant, deputy chief medical officer for the department, told the New York Times, “It’s risky for anybody to stop any type of medication without guidance and a plan from their own treating physician.”
Firefighters union leaders, though, have welcomed the free treatment offered by Downtown Medical to 9/11 rescue workers. In addition, comedian and actor Denis Leary, who’s a moving force behind fundraising for injured firefighters, has also given support, denying allegations that he’s being used by Cruise and the Scientologists.
“Tom Cruise gets a bad rap, let me tell you,” ex-firefighter Higgins said. “I met the guy quite a few times; he’s the ultimate, ultimate wonderful humanitarian and I’m still an Irish Roman Catholic and I going to be one when you talk to me 10 years from now. These guys are square up. Who’s having the problem here?” Higgins said that his involvement is entirely secular, but he believes there’s a principle of religious tolerance involved.
“I respect the Jew next door to me. I give him his courtesy and his respect toward what he believes in, God bless him,” he said.
California native Woodworth, who has been a Scientologist for 15 years, said that people of all religions have attended the center.
“The project is non-profit and non-religious,” he said, adding that neither of the doctors at the Fulton Street center are Scientologists.
“I was raised Catholic. I’m the seventh of 14 children,” he said of his own background. “My uncle’s a monsignor. My whole family’s Catholic. They’re fine with me.”
He said that 247 people have so far been accepted into the program and almost 200 of them have completed it. About 40 to 50 percent of those, he estimated, are Irish American.
The main fund-raising focus now, Woodworth said, is to build a center in Long Island so that former rescue workers don’t have to make a daily trip into Lower Manhattan for treatment.
“It’s a grind because you have to do it every day,” Higgins said. “But you know the grind is worth it when you compare it to a lifetime of sleepless nights and nightmares.
“After the program you still have those images in your head, but they don’t haunt you. That’s because your head is clear. The toxins aren’t burning in your body.”
One friend whom he convinced to enlist in the program has a background with certain similarities to his own.
John McAleese’s late father, who died of multiple sclerosis in January 2001, was a retired firefighter. He too has a brother who’s a police officer. And he was one of the 73 serving firemen who had a brother among the FDNY’s 343 9/11 dead. Brian McAleese left behind a wife and four young children.
John McAleese, attached to Engine 219, Ladder 105, in a Brooklyn firehouse close to his brother’s, was off duty the day of the terrorist attacks. He arrived at 11:10 a.m. He ascertained almost immediately from the circumstances that his brother was probably dead.
Seven of the 12 on duty from John McAleese’s own firehouse died. Other than a one-inch piece of the fibula of John Chipura, a former Marine who’d survived the 1983 Beirut terrorist atrocity that killed 240, no remains of the men were recovered.
The trauma of losing his brother, close colleagues, dozens of other friends and acquaintances, and the arduous nine months working at Ground Zero, has taken its toll. “I’m heartbroken,” McAleese said.
He’s often blindsided by reminders. On a trip to the supermarket with colleagues a while back, he ran into four firefighters from his brother’s company. “I see the three guys that I used to see him with all the time, and a kid, a probie,” he said. “It was like a dagger in my heart.”
He told them that he had to go outside to smoke. “And there was my brother’s company, the fire truck, with his name on the side,” he recalled.
McAleese was off work for a year and, like a great many of his co-workers, in counseling. When he went back to his job, severe medical problems became apparent. Tests showed that he had a 50 percent reduction in lung capacity. On Dec. 7, 2003, the day he brought his infant son home, named Brian for his brother, he was told his career as a firefighter was over.
Things finally came to a head. “Over the holidays I was out three nights, with the three groups of people I care about and love the most: my family, the guys I grew up with, the guys in my firehouse,” he said. “I pissed off everybody. I was on Zoloft, I wasn’t supposed to be drinking.
“I had a new baby boy. I was supposed to be thrilled and all I was thinking was, ‘How well am I going to know this kid, if I kick it in two years or five years or seven years?’ I was in a tailspin. I was a mess, I tried everything. Nothing was working for me.”
Finally, he called Higgins, who’d been encouraging him to take the Downtown Medical program.
“He was after me for the last year,” McAleese said of Higgins. “He’s very well known on the job, very well respected, a very good friend of mine. I take Joey’s word.”
Last week, when interviewed at Downtown Medical, McAleese was on day 23 of the treatment.
“On day 4 it was like a revelation for me,” he said. “I just felt different, I just felt better, and every day consecutively after that.
“I was very skeptical when I was started the program; I didn’t how to take all these people from out of state.”
On the subject of Scientology, he said. “They have never once laid that on me. The main thing is that I feel better. I feel 100 percent better. I’ve still have no wind, but my wheezing is gone.
“I finally feel that I’m back in control of my life and I’m going to start fixing things I made a mess of.”
McAleese believes that after two and a half years he has no more time to lose. “My wife is 35, I’ve got a 7-year-old boy, a 3-year-old girl and a 7-week-old boy,” he said.
He’s likely to join Higgins in the ranks of retired firefighters before the end of the year and must find something another career.
Meanwhile, Higgins is kept busy with advocacy on behalf of the detoxification program. The former FDNY drill instructor is involved too with the New York Golden Gloves.
He’s a single parent raising his 15-year-old son. He also sometimes minds his grandson for his 21-year-old daughter, a college student who’s engaged to be married.
But he misses the department he served for 19 years. “I can’t crawl down hallways no more,” he said. “That what I really want to do.”