On Monday, we again paused to remember and reflect on the tremendous loss our city and nation suffered five years ago. While Sept. 11, 2001 left us with emotional scars that may never heal, steps have to be taken to treat and compensate those who are still suffering physically—the first responders at ground zero. These firefighters, police officers, construction workers and volunteers spent weeks around what we now know to have been a lethal, one million ton mix of concrete, glass, mercury, asbestos, lead and more than 400 other chemicals.
An estimated 40,000 workers were exposed to the toxic rubble, and although the city required that respirators be worn, only half of the workers actually wore them. By contrast, anyone without a respirator at the site of the Pentagon crash was sent away, as they should have been. Maybe former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman correctly contends that her agency could not be held responsible for enforcing such a regulation in the chaos seized region. But Whitman cannot deny that her agency misled the public by saying the toxic air did not threaten human health.
Sadly, after the death of former NYPD Det. James Zadroga, the first 9/11 responder to have his death directly attributed to toxin exposure, we know otherwise. If the suffering of Zadroga and hundreds of others wasn’t enough evidence, a Mt. Sinai Hospital study released two weeks ago leaves little doubt about the dangerous conditions workers toiled in.
But Zadroga wasn’t compensated as were the 23 police officers who died on 9/11 because he continued working until 2004 and didn’t file his case with the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund before the December 2003 deadline. Several charities, including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Twin Towers Fund, raised what amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars for the families of the firefighters, police officers and Port Authority cops lost that morning. But as we have seen, and will undoubtedly see in the coming years, responders didn’t have to die on 9/11 to die from 9/11. Zadroga’s family, and the families of all of the first responders who pass away as a result of ailments contracted at ground zero, are entitled to the same money delivered to the families of those who died five years ago.
And just as these families need to be fairly compensated, so too must those who are now living and suffering after sacrificing themselves at the World Trade Center site. These workers deserve financial support for their medical care and lost livelihoods. Many are not able to work and support their families today because of their selflessness. We would never have thought of abandoning those who suffered more immediate, apparent injuries on 9/11. Uniformed workers, such as firefighters and policemen, should be able to tap into their departments’ pre existing pension and disability programs, but others who helped—volunteers and nonprofit organization workers—must be taken care of as well.
Sadly, no one seems to want to step up to the plate. The finger pointing between Whitman, Gov. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg has as much to do with blame as it does with legal and financial culpability. The first resource to be tapped should be this same $7 billion Victims’ Compensation Fund. The December 2003 deadline must be extended, as lawmakers are now trying to do, or eliminated, so those suffering delayed illnesses can be helped.
Wherever the support comes from, we cannot let bureaucratic red tape excuse us from helping those who gave so much. These individuals sacrificed their personal health and well being at ground zero to put us, and our city, back on its feet. Sept. 11’s first responders were there for us five years ago. It’s time for us to be there for them.