Richard Alles, a deputy chief of the FDNY and a Jackson Heights resident, doesn’t have a Sept. 11-related illness — but he believes it’s only a matter of time until he and every other person who responded to the 2001 terrorist attacks is diagnosed with one.
“It’s just a question of when,” Alles said in an interview with the Queens Chronicle.
Now, after weeks of lobbying federal lawmakers, long-term help has been secured for those who worked at Ground Zero in the weeks following the attacks.
Congress last Friday approved a $1.1 trillion spending package, known as an omnibus bill, that included a $3.5 billion, 75-year extension of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act two months after it expired. The act provides medical coverage for those who responded to the site to search for victims and clean up the rubble.
“There’s an exuberance that I haven’t seen in some time,” Alles said of the reaction of city firefighters after the bill was passed. “The sense of relief and joy is worth all the efforts.”
The House of Representatives voted 316-113 on the bipartisan legislation and the Senate voted 65-33 on it. President Obama signed it into law later that day.
Some changes were made to the law, such as additional oversight of the program, requiring a Government Accountability Report every five years, setting yearly caps on spending and allowing any unused funding in each year to be available for use in future years.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan, Queens), the prime sponsor of the Zadroga Act, issued a statement expressing her happiness with the law’s extension.
“After 15 years, the heroes and survivors of 9/11 will know that their health care is permanent and their compensation is full,” she said in a prepared statement. “Congress has spoken. It is all thanks to the men and women who made that long trip to Washington to walk the halls of Congress and remind us all that we should not and cannot ever forget.”
Maloney first introduced legislation in 2002 to provide emergency workers with healthcare, saying she was “concerned about the health effects of exposure to toxins at Ground Zero.”
According to Maloney, 94 NYPD officers have died from Sept. 11-related ailments, more than were killed on that day, and 110 firefighters have since died.
Studies have shown the air around the site contained harmful toxins and carcinogens, which were breathed in by those in the area.
But Alles and other responders didn’t need a study to tell them that.
“We knew the air was toxic,” he said.
Maloney’s law wasn’t passed until 2010 and, due to inaction from Congress, expired in early October.
Before that and in the weeks that followed, Alles and hundreds of other firefighters and other first responders lobbied members of the House and Senate to permanently extend the act.
The Queens resident lamented how he and his colleagues had to go down to Washington to have the bill passed.
“I hate that we had to be down there,” he said. “The fact we had to go down there, it was embarrassing and humiliating.”
But there wasn’t just an emotional toll paid by the advocates.
Alles told the story of a city firefighter who has a terminal illness and made several trips to and from Washington to lobby lawmakers. He is now “close to death,” the deputy chief said:
“I’m sure the many trips he took had a role in shortening his life.”
He added, however, that it was necessary for him and others to do so.
“They can say no to me,” he said of confronting lawmakers. “But when you face down someone who is facing a terminal illness because they worked and gave up their life, how do you say no to that? They can’t do it.”
He did praise the lawmakers, such as Maloney, who stood with the firefighters.
“I’m so happy with everyone who worked with us,” he said. “They never stopped working with us.”
Alles added firefighters from other states also lobbied for their New York City brothers. Jon Stewart, the former host of “The Daily Show,” also advocated for the law’s extension both during his time as TV host and after his retirement.
Lawmakers at all levels of government issued statements expressing their support for the package’s passing.
“Forcing first responders to travel to Washington to lobby for the measure was outrageous. But I’m thrilled that that we’ve finally crossed the finish line,” Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) said.
“After months of tireless work by our 9/11 first responders, these brave men and women can finally feel secure that they will have healthcare for the rest of their lives. This victory belongs to them,” U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also applauded the law.
Gov. Cuomo said, “The passage of this bill is also proof that Washington can live up to its responsibility to the American people. It shows that Congress can come together to do what is right, and bridge the gridlock and partisan divide to tackle our most pressing challenges.”
“This bill should give over 72,000 first responders and survivors in New York City and around the country long-overdue peace of mind, knowing that they will have access to the vital health care and support they need,” Mayor de Blasio said.
The spending package also includes a five-year, $4.6 billion Victim Compensation Fund extension for family members of Sept. 11 victims.
“In another five years, we’ll go back and see if that has to be extended,” Alles said.
He added both pieces of legislation are “perfect.
“It has everything in there,” he said.