By Carol Polsky Newsday
NEW YORK — Mark J. Natale was a New York City police officer on Sept. 11, 2001, when two commercial jets commandeered by terrorists were flown into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in Manhattan.
He and his partner Michael Henry, officers in the 94th Precinct in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, helped dust-covered people fleeing Manhattan over bridges to Brooklyn and on ferries to New Jersey, then stood guard at the gates around Ground Zero in the days that followed, Henry recalled. The officers covered their faces, he said, with the masks worn by house painters. “That’s all they gave us,” he said Monday.
On Friday, Natale succumbed to the brain cancer that had been certified as related to his exposure to Ground Zero toxins. He was 55 and died in hospice care at his South Huntington home, according to Henry.
John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation who lobbies on behalf of 9/11 first responders and maintains a memorial at Nesconset’s 9/11 Responders Remembered Park, said more than 2,000 first responders have now died from a certified 9/11-related illness.
The foundation keeps count of such deaths each year from September to September. In September 2017, 141 names of first responders who had died in the previous year were etched onto the memorial walls. Since then, Feal said, 102 additional first responders have died, with months to go before the year’s count ends and their names too are inscribed.
“The average age of the first responder was 39,” he said. “Now add all these debilitating illnesses and these men and women are getting weaker and sicker as they age.
“On 9/11 they were in great shape, and now while their mindset might be that of a warrior their body has failed them. They’ve become fragile and weak and these toxins are taking their toll.”
Natale was born Sept. 14, 1962, in South Huntington to Angela Natale, who survives him, and Dominick Natale, now deceased. He graduated from Walt Whitman High School and attended Suffolk County Community College before joining the NYPD, his daughter Catherine said.
In the four months after the 9/11 attacks, Mark Natale also worked on and off at the embarkation point in lower Manhattan for barges moving the debris out to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, said Matthew McCauley, a retired NYPD officer who is a lawyer at Turken and Heath in Armonk. McCauley has assisted many first responders, including Natale, with their benefit claims with the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund.
Natale was not ill when he retired in 2005 after 20 years on the job, and his goal was to spend time with his family, McCauley said. He began working as a school security guard at Walt Whitman High School.
He developed skin cancer in 2015 and, in 2017, developed glioblastoma, a rare brain cancer that has taken the lives of many 9/11 survivors and responders, McCauley said.
Natale stopped working after his brain cancer diagnosis last year, said his co-worker, retired NYPD Officer Christine Beck, one of a group of friends and co-workers who helped take him to medical appointments. She and others contributed pieces of police uniform apparel so he could be buried in dress uniform, she said.
“We used to take him out to breakfast just to get him out of the house because he couldn’t drive anymore,” said Beck, who added that Natale, a Mets fan, loved sports and used to play baseball when he was younger.
“He was a fighter, he fought very hard to survive,” said Beck. “He really loved his kids.”
McCauley said, “Right now his family should be planning a high school and college graduation party for his children, instead of a funeral. Even to the end, he was concerned that they be supported and taken care of.”
He is survived by his wife, Mayra, whom he married in 1991; his son Dominick, 24; daughters Catherine, 21 and Lauren, 17, all of South Huntington; his sisters Denise Pileggi and Debra Diem, both of Melville; and several nieces and nephews.
Visitation is at the M.A. Connell Funeral Home in Huntington Station on Tuesday from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church in Melville, with interment at St. Charles Cemetery.
Henry, 57, who retired from the NYPD in 2012 and lives in Bethpage, said his former partner notified him two years ago about his diagnosis and that he needed proof that he’d been around Ground Zero to get compensated, because his memo book, which police carry to document their daily assignments, had been lost. Henry supplied him with the needed documentation and photos, showing where they were on the days around 9/11.
“We didn’t think we’d get ill, but now I’m going to go get tested,” he said. “Mark was as healthy as me, I thought.”