The calamity that was Sept. 11 has receded in memory for many people who were not directly affected by the terrorist attacks. But for the first responders and the people who lived, worked and attended school near Ground Zero — some 425,000 New Yorkers — the tragedy continues to unfold. Eighteen years after the attacks, many are experiencing a range of illnesses, including cancer, that had their genesis in the toxic air and fumes that lingered for months on the smoldering pile that had been the Twin Towers. Yet the U.S. Congress has dragged its feet on permanently reauthorizing the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund Act.
It’s an unconscionable delay, especially since it was the federal government that assured people it was safe to return to their homes, schools and workplaces less than a month after the attacks.
In 2017, the UFT began an awareness campaign to alert some 2,500 in-service and retired members and the roughly 19,000 students from the schools in the affected area about the medical benefits they were entitled to through the World Trade Center Health Program. The UFT leadership has been in Washington, D.C., lobbying hard for the reauthorization of the 9/11 fund.
Twenty-nine New York City public schools in the Tribeca, lower Manhattan and Chinatown neighborhoods had students and staff who returned to their schools when the government prematurely declared the zone safe. Lila Nordstrom was a 17-year-old student at Stuyvesant HS, three blocks from the World Trade Center, when the attacks occurred. She gave testimony in June before a House Judiciary subcommittee considering the bill. She shared that her former classmates are suffering from rare bone cancers and melanomas; five of them have lymphoma. Nordstrom herself has chronic asthma, gastroesophageal reflux, rhinosinusitis and post-traumatic stress disorder. One former classmate has already died.
“If the VCF is allowed to close, a lot of my classmates will not find out they are sick in time to make a claim at all,” she told the committee. The illnesses they are seeing now are just “the tip of the iceberg,” Nordstrom said.
She’s right. Congress needs to act now to permanently reauthorize the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund Act.