A History of the Long Fight to Secure Funding for 9/11 First Responders

First responder Luis Alvarez pictured with Jon Stewart on Tuesday. Alvarez will soon begin his 69th round of chemotherapy for cancer related to his exposure at Ground Zero. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

On Tuesday, former Daily Show host and frequent advocate for 9/11 first responders Jon Stewart appeared before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, encouraging representatives to vote on Wednesday to re-up the funding of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. But Stewart, who appeared alongside World Trade Center emergency workers, became frustrated when only a little over half of the subcommittee members showed up.

“I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to,” he said. “Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders. And in front of me, a nearly empty Congress. Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one.”

To fully understand Stewart’s frustration requires a thorough accounting of lawmakers’ response to the health crises and loss of life following the cleanup of Ground Zero. Almost two decades out from the disaster, billions have been spent on the effort, and lawmakers have passed several rounds of bills to ensure health care for emergency workers and their families — but there have been numerous public health and political failures.

Initial Exposure

Tens of thousands of first responders came to the aid of victims on September 11, searching for survivors, managing the cleanup of Ground Zero, and exposing themselves to toxic debris in the air including asbestos, lead, and pulverized concrete, which causes silicosis. “We will never know the composition of that cloud, because the wind carried it away, but people were breathing and eating it,” Dr. Michael Crane, at the World Trade Center Health Program, told Newsweek in 2016. “What we do know is that it had all kinds of god-awful things in it. Burning jet fuel. Plastics, metal, fiberglass, asbestos. It was thick, terrible stuff.” The fire burned for 100 days.

Despite the toxic particles in the air, rescue workers and cleanup crews were permitted to work at Ground Zero without respirators. A week after the attack, EPA head Christine Todd Whitman informed residents of lower Manhattan that the air was “safe to breathe and [the] water is safe to drink.” Mayor Rudy Giuliani expressed similar claims of limited toxicity, encouraging New Yorkers to return to their normal routines.

Allegations of Mismanagement

Several years on, first responders began falling sick en masse. As of 2007, around seven out of 10 faced respiratory issues as a result of contamination from Ground Zero. In 2004, personal injury lawyer David Worby filed a class-action lawsuit against New York City, the Port Authority, and contractors hired for the cleanup, representing over 10,000 workers who claimed illnesses as a result of 9/11. “They are getting sick because of people like Christie Todd Whitman and Rudy Giuliani,” Worby said in 2007. Ultimately, the White Plains attorney won his clients $1 billion in settlement money — the same amount that FEMA appropriated to an insurance fund to protect New York against such lawsuits.

By the mid-2000s, advocates for first responders were claiming negligence on behalf of the government, citing the EPA inspector general’s condemnation of the agency’s response to the disaster. In 2006, EPA chemist Cate Jenkins claimed the agency knew about the toxicity in the air at Ground Zero, claiming that the particles in the dust were as “caustic and alkaline as Drano.” In September 2006, New York representatives including Jerrold Nadler and Anthony Weiner filed a request with the attorney general to investigate if charges could be brought against EPA head Christine Whitman. Ultimately, a federal appeals court determined that she could not could be held liable for her statements about air safety at the World Trade Center.

Rudy Giuliani also faced political consequences for his handling of the cleanup and failure to enforce safety regulations for emergency workers. “I would describe it as a conspiracy of purpose,” said Suzanne Mattei, director of the New York office of the Sierra Club, to the New York Times in 2007, during Giuliani’s run for president. “It wasn’t people running around saying, ‘Don’t do this safely.’ But there was a unified attempt to do everything as fast as possible, to get everything up and running as fast as possible. Anything in the way of that just tended to be ignored.”

The First Round of Bills

In August 2006, Governor George Pataki signed a law requiring New York City to pay more in death benefits to relatives of workers involved in the rescue and cleanup at the World Trade Center. As the New York Times reported:

The new law builds on one passed last year that declared that people who worked on the Sept. 11 rescue and cleanup operations, and later got certain respiratory illness or cancers, would be presumed to have gotten sick in the course of their official duties, entitling them to valuable disability pensions. The new law entitles workers who then die from such diseases to qualify for line-of-duty death benefits.

Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Carolyn Maloney co-sponsored a bill in 2006 that eventually became the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. Named after the first NYPD officer whose death could be attributed to exposure to toxic chemicals at Ground Zero, the act granted $4.3 billion for treatment services and medical benefits for emergency workers and survivors of 9/11. It passed, despite a filibuster effort from Republicans who considered the bill too expensive, and was signed into law in 2011.

Stewart Steps In

Monday’s rebuke of the House Judiciary Committee was not the first time the former Daily Show host has fought for 9/11 first responders. In December 2010, Stewart focused an entire episode of his Comedy Central show on the political conflict over the Zadroga Act, bringing on first responders suffering from related illnesses, lambasting Republicans blocking the bill, and criticizing the lack of media coverage of the issue. “I don’t even know if there was a deal [to pass the act], to be honest with you, before his show,” Kenny Specht, a firefighter interviewed on the Daily Show, told the New York Times.

In 2015, Stewart returned to the Daily Show to talk with host Trevor Noah about the Zadroga Act. By 2016, lawmakers had voted to extend the act’s coverage for the next 75 years.

Where We Are

Though the Zadroga Act was extended in 2015, only one piece of the law, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, was fully funded through the end of 2020. “This fund isn’t a ticket to paradise, it’s to provide our families with care,” retired NYPD detective Luis Alvarez told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Tuesday. “You all said you would never forget. Well, I’m here to make sure that you don’t.” Alvarez will soon begin his 69th round of chemotherapy to treat cancer related to his exposure at Ground Zero.

The day after Stewart’s chastening, the House Judiciary Subcommittee voted unanimously to approve funding for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. It is expected to pass through the House at-large, as it has 313 co-sponsors.

According to an analysis last September, 17 years after the terrorist attacks, close to 10,000 first responders had been diagnosed with cancer, and over 2,000 deaths had been attributed to illnesses caused by the attacks. By the end of last year, it was estimated that more people had died from toxic exposure from 9/11 than were killed in the actual attack.

But as Caroline Bankoff wrote in New York in 2016, the worst is probably yet to come:

As former NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley pointed out during the 2012 battle to make funds from the James Zadroga Act available for cancer treatment, “Cancers take 20 years to develop … and we might see something different 20 years down the line.” (Ultimately, nearly 60 types of cancer were added to the list of illnesses eligible for coverage.) Other doctors who have worked with 9/11 survivors have said that they expect to see an increase in cancer in the coming years.

This post has been updated to reflect that the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties approved funding for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

A History of the Fight to Secure Funding for 9/11 Victims