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For LI's first responders, bittersweet relief as Senate acts on 9/11 funding

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) speaks on Jan.

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) speaks on Jan. 22 in Freeport. Credit: Howard Schnapp

First responders from Long Island and those who represent them resoundingly commended Congress for extending the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, saying the move provides bittersweet relief.

The fund will bring financial security to the firefighters, police officers, sanitation employees, office workers and others who have or will develop health complications after being in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the weeks after, supporters said.

Jaime Resker, a retired FDNY firefighter from Islip Terrace, called the bill’s passage a “wonderful thing.”

Resker, 62, said he has attended “too many funerals” of friends and co-workers and has himself suffered from skin cancer and heart problems related to 9/11.

“Something like that brightens your day,” Resker said of the vote. “It’s one less thing to worry about.”

But bill supporters noted their excitement was tamped down by the grim reality of many victims’ conditions.

“We can rest assured that if we become sick and subsequently die of our exposure, that our government is standing behind us and will take care of our families,” said Jake Lemonda of New Hyde Park, president of the FDNY's Uniformed Fire Officers Association.

The bill was named after three first responders who died of 9/11-related ailments: James Zadroga, an NYPD detective, of New York City; Ray Pfeifer, a retired FDNY firefighter, of Hicksville; and Luis Alvarez, a retired NYPD officer, of Oceanside, who died of cancer last month shortly after testifying before Congress.

Alvarez would have had a "big grin on his face" after today's vote, a moment to which he devoted the end of his life, his brother Philip Alvarez said. While the family is "extremely proud" Alvarez's name is on the bill, they are aware that thousands died from 9/11-related illness before him and 18 have died since.

"He'd be the first to tell you, 'Let's forget my name. Remember the ones who died before and after me'" and take care of the ones who get sick later, Philip Alvarez, 56, a retired Suffolk police detective from Commack, said. 

Alvarez died at peace "because he knew he'd done everything he could to help," his brother said.

Michael Barasch, an attorney who represented Zadroga and Pfeifer, said he now can look their families “in the eye to say, ‘Your sons were not forgotten. Your husband was not forgotten.’” Barasch said he has represented about 15,000 people with fund claims.

“All my other clients suffering are going to have peace now,” Barasch said.

Barasch estimated that about 3,000 of his clients are from Long Island, which he called the “Ground Zero for the people who are suffering.”

Elected officials from New York and Long Island echoed their support for the bill’s passage, calling first responders heroes for running toward danger and dedicating hours searching for survivors and clearing debris.

“After nearly two decades, the fight to get our first responders the help they need is nearly over,” Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) said in a statement. “They were there for us, and we have a responsibility to deliver the health care and peace of mind our they need and deserve.”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said first responders deserve our county’s “never-ending gratitude” and support.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said the legislation will ensure victims and families receive the support they have earned after federal environmental officials erroneously told New Yorkers the air at Ground Zero was safe to breathe.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said, "We can never fully repay the firefighters, police officers, construction workers and others who helped us rebuild, but this hopefully gives some comfort to them and their families who sacrificed more than we can ever imagine."

Rep. Tom Suozzi called Tuesday's vote an example of bipartisanship that "people are hungering for."

Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford) spoke out against Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee, the sole senators to vote against the bill, calling it a "disgraceful dereliction of duty" on Twitter.

The fund will also benefit non-first responders who were affected by the terror attack, including commuters and office workers.

Jeffrey Flynn of East Meadow said he developed breast cancer after he watched the World Trade Center towers crumble from an office building nearby and continued to work downtown in the weeks after. His medications cost about $16,000 every month, and the victims’ compensation fund covers the retired company executive’s share of costs after insurance.

“Those people that are sick now and those people that will get sick in the years to come must have some means to get compensated, so they can have somewhat of a normal financial life,” Flynn, 66, said.

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