Last week, President Donald Trump signed the “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act.”
The law commits the government to back those who fall sick from the Sept. 11 attacks — no more extensions, no running out of money. First responders have called it a relief after years of on-and-off fighting for basic aid. It was named for an NYPD officer who died in 2006 and an FDNY member who died in 2017, plus a detective who was alive recently enough to testify for this legislation. All their sicknesses were linked to work on the pile.
But the law is for so many more, sick or not, uniformed or civilian, living and dead.
It is for the off-duty firefighters who saw what happened in Lower Manhattan and went to work without anyone asking. It is for the retired firefighters who drove in from suburban counties, just to do something. It is for the ones who could have retired already but were on duty and died, and the firefighters who were children of firefighters who spent hours and then days amid the rubble and smoke.
It is for the NYPD officers and EMS workers and Port Authority police officers and state troopers who descended on the scene, for the doctors and nurses who prepared to help but, even worse, found little work.
It is for the people of all stripes who worked an impossible bucket line to clear unending debris, for the office workers and regular people who showed up to help, for the searchers and the hopers, for the fathers who dug for sons down below.
It is for those workers and first responders who wore masks because of toxins, but it wasn’t as if they could not go to work, was it?
It is for those who believed the federal government when it said the air was safe in New York. For those who didn’t think the bulky protective masks were sufficient and those who ripped them off for interfering.
“I can’t fault those people,” said Dave Mickunas, a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s elite 26-member Environmental Response Team that worked the site. He told Newsday in 2001: “It’s like telling people who are fighting a war, ‘Gee, why don’t you put on a dust mask before you try to take this beach.’”
The act is for those who developed the “9/11 cough,” who didn’t let that concern stop them, but who might have lost their stoicism while working on the pile when catching a glimpse of a shoe. It is for the survivors and responders to the Pentagon and the crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Coast Guard and boat operators who helped ferry people to New Jersey and other points of safety.
It is for the morgue workers and landfill employees and NYPD detectives in Tyvek suits and goggles and respirators sorting through the debris in Fresh Kills, finding a credit card here, jewelry there, human remains.
It is for the ironworkers and carpenters and gas workers and electricians and painters and handymen and women who worked hours and days to turn the debris back into Manhattan again.
It is for all those who helped and didn’t think about the consequences no matter what those consequences, ultimately, came to be.
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.