A Family’s Tribute

Three members of the Cohen family—a young man, a middle-aged woman, and a girl stand side by side in Foundation Hall. They are holding blue ribbons and standing beside the Last Column to mark the 14th anniversary of the formal end of recovery operations at the World Trade Center.
The Cohen family attended a tribute at the 9/11 Memorial Museum that marked the 14th anniversary of the formal end of recovery operations at the World Trade Center. Photo by Jin Lee.

On Sept. 11, 2001, so many lost their friends and family. I was one of the fortunate ones that did not, or so I thought. My husband, Ronald “Ronny” Cohen, gave his life for this country without realizing it. He was always proud to help those in need on that day and during the many days that followed as he worked at Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills Landfill as a deputy commissioner and senior advisor in the Office of the Mayor. Tragically, he died from brain cancer in 2014 at the young age of 47 because of it.

Every year, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum commemorates the formal end of the World Trade Center rescue and recovery operation and pays tribute to the heroic men and women who worked tirelessly and sacrificed so much to rebuild hope at Ground Zero. During this year’s ceremony in May, I was fortunate to be in attendance with my children to formally donate challenge coins designed by my son in honor of Ronny.

A Promised Fulfilled

In coping with his father’s loss, my son embarked on a journey to create a coin with emblems and words that illustrated Ronny’s life and interests. My family decided to donate the coins to the museum so visitors could learn about Ronny and understand the ongoing human toll of 9/11-related illnesses.

Other artifacts belonging to people who became ill or died from exposure to Ground Zero toxins were also officially donated to the museum at the May ceremony. 9/11 Memorial President Joe Daniels pledged to all us of in attendance that the museum would display these new artifacts by the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

On Sept. 10, that promise was fulfilled during the 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s Community Evening, an annual event where the museum is closed to the public, welcoming all members of the 9/11 community to have free private access. Over 1,000 community members joined us that evening and were able to view, for the first time, the newly installed 9/11 health effects case displayed in Foundation Hall, a prominent space inside the museum.

Photo by: Jin LeeRonny’s coins are displayed within the case so visitors can learn more about this national health crisis. It is overwhelming to think that, according to the World Trade Center Health Program, there are nearly 75,000 men and women currently being monitored for 9/11-related illnesses and that approximately half that number of people have already been diagnosed with a 9/11-related illness. These illnesses include asthma and other respiratory conditions, mental health issues, and over 50 types of cancer.

Preserving the Story

When I saw Ronny’s coins displayed for the first time, I thought about the many people who are still dealing with the loss of loved ones due to the aftermath of that horrific day. But I know my husband went out a hero. It is comforting to know that his coins will always be protected and preserved by the museum. I hope that they always serve as a remembrance of one of the many heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. I know in my heart if he were here, he would do it again without hesitation.

The presence of the new 9/11 health effects case also speaks to the museum’s ongoing commitment to educate the public on 9/11-related illnesses, as well as offering support to all of those in the 9/11 community struggling with these health issues. The museum is actively building the collection on this important topic, so if you have artifacts and would like to share your story, please considering donating, as my family did, by contacting collections@911memorial.org.

By Paula CohenCohen is the wife of Ronald “Ronny” Cohen

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