Jon Stewart never sought thanks for coming to Washington again and again to fight for passage of 9/11 legislation. It makes him uncomfortable, considering the sacrifices made by the firefighters, cops and construction workers he's been trying to help since 2010.
So the gift of gratitude granted to him Tuesday by those men and women before he testified at a hearing on a new 9/11 bill was too much. Stewart couldn’t stop the tears.
It was the bunker coat of a the late FDNY firefighter Ray Pfeifer. Stewart eulogized Pfeifer in 2017, after he finally succumbed to the numerous cancers linked to his 9/11 service.
The former “Daily Show” host met Pfeifer in 2015, the last time 9/11 legislation was expiring, threatening to leave responders and survivors without compensation or a health care program.
They forged a bond that Stewart still cherishes. Pfeifer, fighting stage four cancer, used a wheelchair to get around Capitol Hill and corner lawmakers.
Stewart played the bad cop. Pfeifer was the good one, and sometimes he had to apologize to senators for something Stewart did. The comedian and filmmaker was in awe of the ailing man's ability to do that, and win the legislators over.
“He had such grace,” Stewart said of him at the time.
Standing outside the Judiciary Committee hearing room, some of Ray Pfeifer's closest friends gave Stewart the fire coat Pfeifer had kept from his long-ago days as a captain of the East Meadow Fire Department on Long Island
9/11 advocate John Feal had bought it at an auction to raise money for Pfeifer's memorial foundation. Another retired firefighter and friend, Kenny Specht, gave it to Stewart, with dozens of responders surrounding them.
"I believe everyone here in this hallway have learned brotherhood and camaraderie because we all have one mission," Specht said, explaining where the coat came from.
"We appreciate your help Jon, and this comes from John, and this comes from everybody in this hallway," Specht said while Stewart wiped away the tears.
"I don't deserve this. But I will treasure it, like I treasured Ray and our friendship. And all of you," said a choked-up Stewart. "And we're going to do it today. Not just for Ray. But for all you guys and the people he was fighting for.
"It's beautiful, Stewart, redirecting the gratitude to where he thinks it belongs, on responders. "Thank you," he said.
He hugged as many of them as he could before going into the hearing, where he and they hoped to convince Congress to finally make the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund permanent.