Roll of honor in passing the Zadroga bill for ailing 9/11 responders

Dec 17, 2015
In The News

Fourteen years after 9/11, the U.S. government at last redeems the national honor by committing to care for and compensate the rescue and recovery workers who paid with their health and their lives by serving at Ground Zero.

Both houses of Congress, with solid majorities of Democrats and Republicans, are set to approve the billions of dollars needed to provide highly specialized care for the responders whose lungs were destroyed by the toxic air over the Pile — and who are increasingly afflicted with environmentally related cancers.

While nothing can repay their sacrifices or restore health, the country now pledges to do what it can to ameliorate their suffering.

A terrible, long-standing wrong is being set right, thanks to the unflagging efforts of an especially dedicated band of New Yorkers and elected officials. Read on and take their names as belonging to a roll of honor.

In the urgent days after the attack, officials welcomed cops, firefighters, ironworkers and many others to search for the lost and then to join the labor of rebuilding. Some officials declared the smoking cloud safe to breathe.

This was a lie, as a group of physicians at Mount Sinai Hospital recognized. But few would listen to them.

Then came the death of 34-year-old NYPD Detective James Zadroga on Jan. 5, 2006. Although his lungs had been destroyed, the medical examiner pulled reasons for doubt out of thin air. Then came more deaths and illnesses and more denials of links between to Ground Zero.

Members of the New York congressional delegation, led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, her indefatigable aide Ben Chevat, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, Rep. Jerry Nadler and Long Island Rep. Pete King began advocating for the sick and the dying.

They were right, but they were dismissed by a Republican-controlled House because the city’s medical authorities, fearing liability, continued to deny a link between Ground Zero and sickness.

Finally, courageous researchers began studies that were largely overlooked until the Daily News, in a series of editorials, presented the full weight of scientific evidence to document the toll so many had suffered.

Among the leading researchers were Fire Department Drs. Kerry Kelly and David Prezant, who found that firefighters at Ground Zero had lost the equivalent of 12 years of lung function, and  Robin Herbert and the late Stephen Levin, physicians who early on opened a monitoring and treatment program at Mount Sinai.

Still, Republicans in Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush refused action — even after brave truth-telling by Dr. John Howard, a physician appointed to study the issue.

When change came to the White House, even President Barack Obama failed to make the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act a priority. It wasn’t until two years later, in the final hours of Democratic control of Congress in 2010, that the Zadroga bill won approval, with scarcely any GOP votes.

Clinton’s successor, Kirsten Gillibrand, became instrumental in the closely divided Senate. With endless dedication, citizen activists like John Feal, a construction supervisor whose foot was crushed during WTC recovery, kept up the pressure. As did TV comedian Jon Stewart, whose biting “Daily Show” attacks on sanctimonious patriotic politicians pushed Zadroga over the finish line. But with a five-year expiration date.

Disgracefully, Washington allowed the five-year bill to lapse this year. The fight began anew for permanent funding, as cancer and other deadly ailments pay no heed to legislative timelines.

Freshman Rep. Dan Donovan, whose district has more Zadroga program registrants than any other in the nation, became a stand out.

Slowly but surely, Maloney, Nadler, King and Donovan gained House sponsors, ending up with 268, including 80 Republicans compared with only 17 five years ago.

In the Senate, Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer corralled 69 members, including 23 Republicans. The last to sign on were Richard Burr of North Carolina and John Boozman of Arkansas.

The final deal came down to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Five years ago they both voted no. Now, they say yes in true public service.

God bless the 9/11 responders and God bless the American leaders, who finally stood by them.