More than 25,000 responders and survivors have registered with the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund -- 7,000 just in the past two months -- with the 12th anniversary of the attacks looming and little more than three weeks until the deadline to sign up.
Advocates had worried those made sick from the World Trade Center collapse or working on the pile would miss the Oct. 3 deadline to register with the $2.775 billion fund, set up under the federal James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010. By the end of June, fewer than 18,000 people had signed up.
"There's been a huge increase in registration in the last few months and it's increasing every week," said special master Sheila Birnbaum, who oversees the fund. "They're getting the message this is the deadline."
The concerns partly stemmed from the fact that no one has a good idea of how many people might register -- especially with office workers and residents of Lower Manhattan made ill by the attacks also eligible. Estimates ranged from 19,000 to about 50,000 out of the estimated 400,000 to 680,000 people who were exposed to the toxic mix of dust, smoke and debris.
"It's still a moving target," Birnbaum said. She said the "overwhelming majority" who have registered so far are responders.
Benjamin Chevat, executive director of the 9/11 Health Watch in Manhattan, a nonprofit formed by unions, said the lack of solid numbers reflects the lag in time before the federal government began to acknowledge health problems related to the terrorist attacks.
"For years we had to struggle to even get Washington to admit there was a problem," Chevat said. "The only way we're going to know is when it's done."
Confusion over eligibility
Another issue has been confusion about who is eligible for the fund, which will award money to those deemed physically harmed as a result of the attacks. Anyone diagnosed with a 9/11-associated illness as of Oct. 3, 2011, must register by this Oct. 3. Those already diagnosed with a 9/11- associated cancer -- added later to the list of covered diseases -- must register by Oct. 12, 2014.
Many responders say they see the fund as critical protection for their families, others wonder if they will live to see the payments.
Patrick Triola, 50, of Wantagh, a former New York City police officer who worked 104 days at Ground Zero, has four children. He lost a kidney to cancer in 2008 and recently recovered from a lung infection.
"I'm just waiting," Triola said of his submission to the fund. "I'm hoping. We shall see."
"I am worried about it, the way the program is written," said Bruce Edwards, 56, of Ronkonkoma, an electrician who worked in a building close to Ground Zero.
In 2007, Edwards was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He said he submitted his paperwork about six months ago. "I haven't heard a thing," he said, adding that the money would help make up for lost wages and pension.
'For the rest of my life'
Joseph Greco, 44, of Hicksville, a former New York City police officer who worked on the pile and amid 9/11 debris at the Staten Island landfill, said the fund compensation "goes toward the future, for the rest of my life."
His 11 medications for asthma -- one of which costs $1,800 a month, are covered under the Zadroga-funded World Trade Center Health Program, Greco said, but "who knows when the funding is going to stop? If they stop giving me meds, I'm done."
Those who are healthy do not have to register. If they subsequently are diagnosed with a 9/11-associated disease, they have two years from the date of the diagnosis to register.
Advocates said they have received calls from responders who are healthy and unsure whether they have to register and from some who are sick but reluctant to sign up because they fear they will take money from someone sicker.
"A lot of them are a little uncomfortable asking for help," said Richard Alles, deputy chief and legislative director for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "I tell them every case is unique and does not have impact on others."
Lawyers still signing clients
Lawyers representing responders said they have recently seen a steady stream of calls.
"Everything has picked up. We're still getting clients everyday," said Noah Kushlevsky of Kreindler & Kreindler in Manhattan, who with Michael Barasch represents about 5,000 responders.
Andrew Carboy, an attorney with Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo in Manhattan, which represents about 1,200 responders, said the firm was "still signing up four to eight a week."
Birnbaum said she and her staff have been concentrating on registering people and less on awarding compensation.
According the Department of Justice, which is administering the fund, 53 awards have been made as of late June. Under the law, $875 million of the fund can be paid out in the first five years of the program; the rest may be paid in the sixth year -- 2016 -- when funding ends. To ensure that the fund doesn't run out of money, awards are being prorated. The first payment is 10 percent of each person's award.
John Feal, founder of the responders' advocacy group FealGood Foundation, said ensuring there is continued funding when the law expires in three years is the next huge hurdle.
"What we need to be concentrating on is renewing the bill," he said. "2016 -- that comes quick."
CORRECTION: The date when Patrick Triola, was diagnosed with kidney cancer was incorrect in an earlier version.
Compensation for 9/11 victims
FUND: September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, established under James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010.
ADMINISTRATOR: Special master Sheila Birnbaum, appointed by the Department of Justice in 2011.
MONEY: $2.775 billion
ALLOCATION: $875 million available first five years; the rest to be paid in 2016.
WHO'S ELIGIBLE: Responders and survivors present at a 9/11 crash site between Sept. 11, 2001, and May 30, 2002, whose physical harm is a direct result of the terrorist-related crashes or debris removal.
WHAT'S COVERED: Lung and respiratory diseases, gastro-esophageal reflux disorder, sleep apnea, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, musculoskeletal disorders, injuries, about 60 cancers
DEADLINES TO REGISTER: