WASHINGTON — A year ago this week, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund was enshrined into federal law, but the advocates and attorneys who walked the halls of Congress for years pushing to make the fund permanent say the work to ensure that survivors enroll in the program continues.
Enrollment in the fund — which provides financial compensation to the thousands of first responders, workers and others who were exposed to the pollutants emanating from the crash sites in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon in Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania — is set to expire on July 29, 2021.
So far the program, which was permanently extended by Congress last July and signed into law days later by President Donald Trump, has provided nearly $6.82 billion in overall funding to more than 30,000 survivors enrolled in the program. But advocates contend many more people beyond the first responders and workers who cleared rubble near the crash sites may not be aware that they are eligible to seek funding.
Sara Director, a Glen Cove native who is a partner at Barasch McGarry, a Manhattan-based law firm that represents more than 20,000 survivors, said non-first responders account for only 5% of the recipients of the fund, likely because many workers, students and residents who spent time near Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of the attacks are unaware the fund is not solely for first responders.
“As tough as it was to get this bill passed, now is when the real work really begins, spreading the word to the … first responders, survivors, students, office workers, teachers, residents, or anyone that breathed in the air on 9/11 to ensure that they are aware of the one year deadline.”
Director was a student at New York Law School at the time of the attacks and returned to classes in lower Manhattan two weeks later because officials at the time said there were no issues with the air quality in the area. Though she has not fallen ill, Director said she gets screened for skin cancer annually, and has enrolled in the fund in the event she is later diagnosed with a 9/11-related disease. Thousands of first responders and workers have since fallen ill with cancers and respiratory illnesses linked to their time near the crash sites.
John Feal, founder of the Nesconset-based Feal Good Foundation that organized trips for first responders to lobby lawmakers in Washington, said the current pandemic has underscored the importance of passing the fund, named after three first responders who succumbed to illnesses related to working near Ground Zero.
Feal, a Ground Zero worker who was severely injured and has since survived a COVID-19 diagnosis, said in an age of social distancing, it would have been impossible to press lawmakers to pass the legislation formally known as the “The Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.”
“We would not have gotten a bill passed this year, just because of the pandemic, the social injustice … we would have taken a back seat,” Feal said. “Over the last 18 and a half years we had to take a back seat to [Hurricane] Katrina, we had to take a back seat to [superstorm] Sandy. We had to take a back seat to Mother Nature. We had to take a back seat to incompetence by Congress when something else came up … if we didn't do what we did last year, we'd be in a world of hurt right now, so you know I'm so thankful that we got it done last year.”
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), one of the key sponsors of the compensation fund extension, said that while more can be done to raise awareness about the enrollment deadline, he believes more “advocating” on the issue will be done as next year’s deadline draws closer.
“It was really essential that it passed last year,” King said. “That was the moment to do it. Also, I didn't want the issue to be part of an election campaign. We were entering a presidential election year, a congressional election year, it’s too easy for somebody to demagogue, showboat, knock it aside, or say it was a gift to New York, one of those things, and I think last year was the time … all the forces lined up perfectly.”