For all the immediate confusion surrounding the terrorist attacks of 9/11, first responders knew exactly where they needed to be: Shanksville, PA, the Pentagon, and at Ground Zero in the heart of New York City. Tens of thousands of brave men and women rushed to the burning rubble and began to put our country back together.
That day, many first responders, including police and firefighters, lost their lives trying to save others. More showed up the next day to begin the solemn and dangerous work sorting through “the pile.” Fires burned beneath the debris and toxic dust filled the air of lower Manhattan for blocks.
In the years since the attack, thousands of first responders have gotten sick and died as a result of their exposure to toxins in the air during the massive cleanup effort. In 2011, Congress reopened the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) in order to address the rising number of new claims.
In 2019, the VCF was forced to slash payments to eligible claimants because it was running low on funds. With more than 19,000 claims to process and thousands more likely to be filed, Congress needed to act quickly to ensure that there would be money for those who needed it.
Why Are People Still Getting Sick from the 9/11 Attacks?
The rescue workers who inhaled toxic dust at Ground Zero unknowingly put themselves at risk for developing a number of deadly diseases, such as brain cancer, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Since 2012, nearly 50% of new claims are cancer-related.
Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer caused exclusively by asbestos exposure. The disease has a latency period of 20-50 years, which means that many of the heroes who risked their lives during the 9/11 rescue and cleanup efforts have only now begun to show symptoms. Just because the disease took years to arrive does not mean the person or their family suffers any less.
No amount of exposure to asbestos is safe — it may be inhaled directly on the jobsite, or it may be brought back home on a worker’s clothes, resulting in second-hand asbestos exposure for their family. Both asbestos’s long latency period and its ability to cause “take-home” exposures are driving factors in the number of rising claims made to the VCF.
Remembering Luis G. Alvarez — 9/11 Cancer Advocate
In June 2019, at a congressional hearing on a bill to authorize funding for the VCF, retired NYPD detective Luis G. Alvarez gave an emotional testimony. He was joined by many 9/11 cancer survivors who had come to the nation’s capital to make sure that Congress would approve funding for all of the first responders who continue to get sick.
It was the day before Alvarez was scheduled to receive his 69th round of chemo treatment. He admonished the legislature who promised they would “never forget.” Instead of awaiting treatment somewhere comfortable, Alvarez was in Washington, having to explain why Congress should do the right thing:
“I have been to many places in this world and done many things, but I can tell you that I did not want to be anywhere else but Ground Zero when I was there. We were part of showing the world we would never back down from terrorism and that we could all work together. No races, no colors, and no politics.
Now the 9/11 illnesses have taken many of us and we are all worried about our children, our spouses and our families and what happens if we are not here. The VCF has done a wonderful job and treated my family with great respect. But my life isn’t worth more than the next responder to get cancer. My family’s needs are not worth less than others that have already died.
The fund is not a lottery ticket to paradise. It is there to provide for our families when we can’t. Nothing more.”
Alvarez received a standing ovation. In the days after his testimony, Alvarez was deemed too frail to receive another round of chemotherapy. Less than 3 weeks later, he passed away.
But Congress heard what Alvarez had to say. With all but 2 votes, the measure passed in the Senate, and on July 29, 2019, the president signed the bill, which now permanently authorizes funding for the VCF. Alongside fellow 9/11 victims and advocates James Zadroga and Ray Pfeifer, Luis Alvarez’ name is included in the title of the bill.
New Memorial Honors 9/11 Rescue and Recovery Workers
Now, in 2020, visitors to the World Trade Center Memorial in New York City will find a new section devoted to the recovery workers of 9/11. At the opening ceremony in May, former mayor Michael Bloomberg said:
“Today we are dedicating this memorial glade to all who became sick or died because of causes related to the attacks and to all the men and women who took part in the rescue and recovery effort. . .
“We have a duty to care for those who need it and to honor the memory of those who died. The memorial glade helps us to fulfill that duty.”
Six granite slabs inlaid with steel recovered from the World Trade center line a path through Memorial Glade. In the midst of the bustling city, the glade serves as a quiet reminder of the first responders who gave their lives to turn a scene of destruction back into a prosperous plaza.
We must never forget it. This 9/11, take a moment to remember all of our 9/11 victims and heroes. Their legacies will live on forever.