By Hannah Hess
WASHINGTON — With benefits for 9/11 first responders set to expire at the end of September, dozens of firefighters descended on Capitol Hill to talk about cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and respiratory diseases contracted at ground zero.
The World Trade Center Health Program “fills a unique need” for thousands of first responders by connecting them to medical providers who have a depth of experience with the physical and mental challenges they face dating back to 2001, said National Institute for Occupational and Safety and Health Director John Howard, testifying to a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
Before the hearing, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney huddled with members of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who rode a bus to Washington to pack five rows of the Rayburn committee room. “We are appreciating so much this opportunity to tell you that we’ve lost, since 9/11, over 106 firefighters and fire officers. Thousands more are sick,” the New York Democrat said, rallying the men to ask Republicans for a markup, after Wednesday’s hearing on a bill to reauthorize the program.
The program was established in 2011 with a bill named for deceased New York City Police Department Officer James Zadroga. Members of the New York delegation, including Republicans Peter T. King and Chris Collins, plus Democrats Paul Tonko, Yvette D. Clarke and Eliot L. Engel, sat on the dais, facing the crowd full of firefighters.
King called the legislation one of the most important bills during his 22 years in Congress, and other lawmakers from the region used it as an opportunity to talk about their memories from the terror attacks.
“Many of us in the delegation went to the site … it was just surreal … like a nightmare, you couldn’t believe you were living it,” Engel said. He suggested more people might have been exposed to the toxic debris blanketing the site than could ever be imagined — members of Congress included. “They gave us masks, but didn’t really make it seem as if it was that important.”
In New York alone, nearly 900 members of the city’s fire department and more than 550 police personnel struggle with 9/11-related illnesses, according to the IAFF. Additionally, more than 100 fire fighters and 80 police officers have died from such conditions.
Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., recalled seeing a fire truck from Florida when he visited Ground Zero to assess the damage. “It just struck me at the time how so many people responded from all over the country,” Pallone said.
The program benefits responders and survivors scattered all across the country.
“In 2014, there were 71,942 individuals in the World Trade Center Health Program from 429 out of the 535 congressional districts,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the full committee. “In fact, there are 75 Michigan residents currently enrolled in the WTC Health Program.”
James Slevin, vice president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, said on his way into the hearing that he wanted Congress to recognize “this is a national problem” and to make the health program permanent. “We had first responders from all over the country who came to help in our time of need,” Slevin said.
A second panel included a retired New York City police officer who has battled a host of ailments, including cancer, since September 2001 and is now permanently disabled. A former detective from the department who served at ground zero for 23 days also testified about the illness that brought her career to an end.
Slevin said firefighters had follow-up meetings scheduled around the Hill. “We’re going to keep coming back until this gets done,” he added.
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