Traveling for a hero


BY Terese Loeb Kreuzer

Shortly before 8 a.m. on September 29, a motor coach pulled away from the building occupied by the DC37 union on Barclay Street. The squeal and clang of construction at the nearby World Trade Center site accompanied the departure. On board were people who had worked on the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center after September 11, 2001, neighborhood residents and community activists who were planning to travel more than nine hours that day, from New York City to Washington, D.C. and back, to support the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, up for its second House vote. If passed, the bill would be the first step in providing ongoing health care to those whose health has since worsened and would reopen the federal Victim Compensation Fund.

Catherine McVay Hughes, who lives near the site, and is a veteran of the struggle to get the Zadroga bill passed, said the day was a make-or-break moment. If the bill again failed to pass, there would be no other chance.

The Barclay Street bus was one of four sponsored that morning by the non-profit FealGood Foundation, whose founder, John Feal, a demolitions supervisor, volunteered at the site and lost half his foot when an eight-ton steel beam fell on it.

The mood on the bus was somber. People mostly read, slept, checked their cellphones or seemed lost in thought. Some of them had been to Washington before to lobby for the Zadroga bill. A few were novices.

Battery Park City resident Chris Snyder had not done this before.

“I think a lot of people were deceived in terms of the atmosphere and what they needed to do to protect themselves,” he said, explaining why he had taken a day off from work to be on the bus. “People were told by Governor Whitman that the air was okay. It wasn’t. Justice for these people is necessary.”

Evelin Zumba, a case manager for the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center at Bellevue Hospital volunteered to go to Washington out of personal experience – “a lot of people with mental health and physical conditions, a lot with family problems. A lot of the families have disintegrated. Whatever I can do to help — that’s why I’m here today.”

Glenn Abatemarco, 49, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was an example of what Ms. Zumba described. Mr. Abatemarco was in good health prior to 9/11 and had an important managerial job at an investment bank. Now he can only work a few hours a day because of breathing and concentration problems and traveled to Washington, D.C. with 19 medications and a nebulizer.

In New Jersey, the bus pulled into a rest stop and more people got on. Among them was Joseph Zadroga, 63, whose son, James, was an NYPD detective. James died in January 2006 at 34 — the first person whose death was linked to exposure to World Trade Center toxins.

“Jimmy was sick within the first two weeks,” Mr. Zadroga said. “He had World Trade Center cough and for four years, we tried to get help for him from doctors and hospitals and every time he went to a hospital, the hospital would discharge him and tell him he wasn’t sick.”

After an autopsy came back “and showed that he had died from 9/11,” Mr. Zadroga continued, “the press came to our house and I said to my wife, ‘We can either tell the press to go away and not bother us or we can become advocates for the other people out there that are sick.’” The Zadrogas decided on the latter even though, as Mr. Zadroga said, “It’s been hard on us — constantly bringing it up and talking about it — but it’s something I think Jimmy would have wanted for us to do.”

The hours and miles sped by. New Jersey. Pennsylvania, Delaware. Some people on the bus tried to get some sleep. A light rain began to fall.

What would happen in Washington and when it would happen were uncertain. Briefly, it was reported that the vote scheduled for that day had been postponed. Then it was said it was on again. A call came through saying only an hour of debate would be permitted prior to the vote. There were phone calls as to when that would happen. It wasn’t clear that the buses would arrive in time.

No one said much. The tension mounted.

Four and a half hours after leaving New York City, the buses pulled up to the Capitol and the riders were greeted by Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), one of the Zadroga bill’s sponsors, and by Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY), a passionate advocate of the bill. Then the bus riders filed into the House gallery.

At 1:10 p.m., Congressman Nadler got up to speak on the floor of the House. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “pursuant to House Resolution 1674, I call up the bill (H.R. 847) to amend the Public Health Service Act to extend and improve protections and services to individuals directly impacted by the terrorist attack in New York City on September 11, 2001, and for other purposes, and ask for its immediate consideration.”

In the visitors’ gallery, firemen, policemen, first responders, volunteers, neighborhood residents, union representatives and Mr. Zadroga looked down on the nearly empty chamber where the proponents of the bill sat on one side and the opponents on the other.

For an hour, those for the bill and those opposed to it debated.

“We have a moral obligation to treat those who became ill,” Nadler said, “and that is what this bill is all about. For eight years, Representative [Carolyn] Maloney and I, supported in a bipartisan basis by the New York delegation and others, have worked to bring this bill to the floor. Now it is finally time to pass it.”

Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) spoke in opposition. The legislation, as written, creates a huge “slush fund paid for by taxpayers that is open to abuse, fraud and waste,” he said. “That is because the legislation creates an inexplicable and unprecedented 21-year-long fund.”

He said that Detective James Zadroga had not died because of exposure to Ground Zero dust, but for other reasons. “So the bill is deceptive,” said Smith, “starting with its title.”

Around 2:30 p.m., the House chamber began to fill. Most of the seats were taken. The voting would soon begin.

At 3 p.m., the Republicans, who were largely opposed to the bill, made a motion to recommit it, which would have sent it back to committee and killed it. The motion to recommit was around 70 pages long, and the proponents of the bill had not seen it before. As Congressman Nadler later explained, the proponents asked for the provisions to be read aloud to buy time as they pored through the document newly put in front of them to make sure there were no clauses that would make it impossible for them to vote for the bill. As each new proposed amendment was read, Nadler made a judgment.

“We can live with that,” he said.

The voting on the motion to recommit began. Electronic boards at either end of the room kept a running tally of the yeas and nays, and another electronic board above the press gallery listed each Congress person’s name and how he or she voted.

At 3:24 p.m., the vote to defeat the motion to recommit went over the top accompanied by applause on the House floor and in the visitors’ gallery. Then a vote followed on the passage of the bill. A simple majority was needed for passage. At 3:32 p.m., the vote to pass the bill went over the top. There was applause on the House floor, and the people who had come down on the bus were on their feet in the gallery, cheering and applauding. Maloney stood near the Speaker’s desk in her pearls and dark pink suit, pumping her fist in the air.

The final vote was 268 to 160, with 255 Democrats and 13 Republicans supporting the bill.

At a press conference afterward in the Rayburn House Office Building, people were both teary-eyed and beaming.

“I was extremely emotional today,” Nadler said. “We won a major victory and I am overjoyed.”

After listening to speeches from everyone who had anything to do with passing the bill, the bus riders walked back to the Capitol steps for the trip home.

“Come over here!” John Feal barked at them. “Form a circle! Join hands!” Everyone complied.

“I want someone to say a prayer,” said Feal. From the back of the crowd, someone volunteered, mentioning God and gratitude.

Mr. Feal looked solemn.

“Enjoy today’s victory,” he said. “But we still have a long way to go. We have to be back here in a few weeks to get the bill through the Senate.”

The Senate has recessed until after the November election and many people think the Senate bill may be blocked by a filibuster. New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand will be leading the fight for passage.

On the bus ride home, there were sandwiches, some happy conversation and then exhaustion. It had been a long day – not only physically but emotionally.

“When the bill finally passed — and we weren’t sure it was going to pass — I got goose bumps all over,” Catherine McVay Hughes reflected. “We really hope now that this positive momentum will pass the bill in the Senate. We need just a couple Republicans to support it. It will be the right thing to do.”