Lobby for Zadroga; now or never

By Terese Loeb Kreuzer

Volume 20, Number 48 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | November 24 – 30, 2010

Intense Lobbying for Zadroga; it’s now or never

In the predawn darkness of November 16, a small group of people huddled under umbrellas outside the District Council 37 building on Barclay Street in Lower Manhattan, waiting for a bus to take them to Washington, D.C. for yet another round in the fight for passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

The $7 billion bill is the number one priority for New York lawmakers these days and would provide medical monitoring and treatment to World Trade Center responders and to people who lived, worked and studied in Lower Manhattan on 9/11 and who might have been affected by toxins. It would also reopen the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

In September, after years of struggle, the Zadroga Act passed the House of Representatives. Following the Thanksgiving recess, it will come up for a vote in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to prevent a filibuster that would kill the bill, probably forever. It has 58 supporters.

The people on the bus, one of two chartered by the Fealgood Foundation, included first responders, Lower Manhattan residents, members of 9/11 families and City Council Member Margaret Chin. Alex Sanchez, 43, brought his nine-year-old son, Jack.

“I did clean-up work on skyscrapers surrounding the pit,” said Sanchez, describing himself as “cheap labor.”

“I worked down there six months, seven days a week, 12 to 14 hour days,” said Sanchez.

Now he takes 14 medications a day and is on permanent disability.

“I’ve lost count of how many trips I’ve been on to Washington,” Sanchez said. “This is Jack’s sixth trip. He wanted to be with me today.”

Sanchez complimented “the display of tenacity from the entire New York Congressional team – Carolyn Maloney, Congressman Jerry Nadler, Anthony Weiner, King – not only has their leadership helped save my life, but they have inspired me to go out there and be in the front line once again for the men and women who are sick and dying.”

Several people on the bus said that although they were sick themselves, they were there to speak for those who were too sick to make the trip or who had already died from 9/11-related illnesses. Almost 1,000 people have already died, with new deaths each month.

Frank Crichlow, who just turned 46, said he was at the World Trade Center site from beginning to end. “I was doing search and rescue, body retrieval, medical support – you name it, I was doing it,” he said. Crichlow, who used to be a construction worker, was a volunteer. Now he has asthma and nasal problems, and though he said he still can work, he adds “I don’t know about later on.” In addition to his health, his work at the World Trade Center site cost him his family. He is divorced. “A big part of it is because of what happened,” he said. “After I went down to help on September 11, I didn’t return home for a month. I had nightmares. After awhile, I just shut everybody out. I talk to counselors now but I get a sense that they don’t understand. The people who worked at the World Trade Center meet as a group four times a year. That helps. We’ve all become like one big family. We’ve lost a lot of friends but we gained a lot at the same time.”

Despite what his service has cost him, Crichlow said he “would do it again in a heartbeat. We have people on the frontlines fighting to protect us,” he said. “Somebody has to take care of home. I have relatives and friends and people I know who are fighting overseas. Quite a few. I don’t consider myself a brave man. I just consider it a human thing to do.”

It was still raining, approaching a downpour, when the buses got to Washington nearly five hours after leaving New York. The group split up into teams with the agenda of visiting every Senatorial office, speaking to someone as highly placed as possible about the Zadroga bill, and leaving literature explaining what’s at stake.

“All we’re asking is that our government do the right thing,” said John Devlin, one of the spokesmen for the group in the office of Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico.) “I’m a construction guy – a tradesman. I’m not a hero every day like the firemen and the cops. When I stand here, I’m standing to represent the union tradesmen – the normal guy that went down there.”

Devlin said he traveled with an operating engineer, Local 15 and an emergency responder.

“We went down because no one else could do the construction part of it. If it wasn’t for us, that job would still be going on today. I was down there 10 months, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. Now I have level four, inoperable throat cancer and cancer on the tongue and both lymph nodes. I’ve had 33 radiations and eight chemotherapy [treatments], four surgeries. I’m still learning how to eat. I’m not here for myself. I’m here for the brothers and sisters that aren’t capable of coming here and the ones that are going to get sick later that don’t think they are.”

The group trudged from office to office for hours. Sometimes they were only able to talk to receptionists. Sometimes a legislative aide invited them to sit down in a conference room and make their case for the Zadroga bill.

“Lives depend on it, literally,” said Glen Klein, who works with the Fealgood Foundation. “There have been close to 1,000 deaths since 9/11 – burly guys, firefighters, cops, construction workers – in their 30’s, 40’s, early 50’s. Civilians who lived around the area and were healthy have gotten sick. Children have asthma now. We really need support. If this bill doesn’t get passed by December 31, we don’t think it will ever get passed.”

At 2:30 p.m., the lobbying group stopped their petitioning to attend a press conference where Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sponsor of the bill in the Senate, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and other politicians and union representatives spoke. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had come to Washington to do his own lobbying, was also at the podium.

“Nine years ago no one could have imagined that our nation would ignore its duty to the 9/11 heroes,” Sen. Gillibrand said. Sen. Schumer compared their service to members of the military. “Just like soliders, these people volunteered, rushed to danger, risked their lives for our freedom and for the greater good,” he said. “Since when does America turn its back on people like that? We will not rest until we find the other handful of votes that we need to give us the 60 votes.”

As of November 23, the 60 votes still are not there. The supporters of the bill believe that they have 59 in their camp, including 56 Democratic senators, two independents and Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, who was elected to fill the seat vacated by Barack Obama.

Going home, some of the people on the bus expressed their desperation. They are ill, they are likely to die young and if the Zadroga bill doesn’t pass, they have nowhere else to turn.