WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed into law on Monday bipartisan legislation that ensures the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund offering financial support to those who were injured or developed diseases in their work responding to the nation’s deadliest terrorist attack never runs out of money.
Trump signed the bill surrounded by dozens of first responders, including several from Long Island, at a Rose Garden ceremony. He praised the crew of police officers, firefighters and emergency workers, calling them “warriors” who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with “love and loyalty.”
“We pledge to stand by the families of those affected today, and every day we will stand with you,” Trump said before signing the bill named after three fallen first responders, including two Long Islanders, former FDNY firefighter Ray Pfeifer of Hicksville and retired NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez of Oceanside. The third, James Zadroga, a former NYPD officer who died in 2006 from respiratory disease, was from New Jersey.
The “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act” renews funding for the federal program through 2092, ensuring that hundreds of first responders, construction workers and others who lived or worked in the vicinity of the attack sites have access to medical coverage after being exposed to toxins in the days and weeks after the attacks.
Several of the first responders on hand have been grappling with forms of cancer and respiratory diseases linked to their time working near Ground Zero. A special master appointed to oversee the Victim Compensation Fund warned lawmakers earlier this year that the fund was running out of money, and those enrolled in the program would face up to 70 percent cuts in their payments.
The law guarantees funding will never fall short. The Congressional Budget Office has said the fund was likely to need $10.2 billion to operate over the next decade, but stopped short of delivering an estimate for the remaining decades.
John Feal, founder of the Nesonset-based FealGood Foundation, which has advocated on behalf of the 9/11 first responders, said he was “relieved the 9/11 community is going to be lifted of their financial burden.”
“We get a chance to exhale,” said Feal, who received one of several black markers used by Trump to sign the bill. Feal said he planned to take it to Pfeifer’s grave. Pfeifer died in 2017 from kidney cancer linked to his eight months working on the Ground Zero site.
The bill signing ceremony marked the final stop in a nearly 18-year-long effort to secure financial compensation for the victims of the 9/11 attacks and those who worked in the recovery effort. For years, first responders and advocates trekked to the nation’s capital to lobby lawmakers to reauthorize the fund every five years, but as the ranks of victims grew older, and sicker, advocates — including comedian Jon Stewart — made impassioned appeals to Congress for the fund to be permanently authorized.
Alvarez, days before he died from cancer linked to his time at Ground Zero, appeared before lawmakers at a June 11 hearing, where he told them: “You made me come here the day before my 69th round of chemo. I’m going to make sure that you never forget to take care of the 9/11 responders.”
Alvarez’s brother, Philip Alvarez, of Commack, attended Monday’s ceremony, saying he was sure his brother was “smiling down at us … happy that it’s finally fulfilled.” The bill was signed one month to the day after Luis Alvarez died.
“All he ever wanted was to make sure people would be taken care of if they got sick like he did, that’s why he went and testified before Congress,” Alvarez said.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan led the effort in the U.S. House, where the measure they co-sponsored passed earlier this month by a vote of 402-12.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was the lead sponsor in the Senate, where the bill passed last week by a vote of 97-2.
King was the only sponsor on hand at the event, seated in the front row of the ceremony alongside Rudy Giuliani, who was New York City mayor at the time of the attacks and now serves as the president’s personal attorney.
The White House said Stewart and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were invited. Neither attended.
The White House said it invited all members of Congress to attend, but the bill’s Democratic sponsors were not on hand. Maloney’s office said she never received an invitation. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Gillibrand received invitations at 12:25 a.m. on Saturday, according to Schumer’s office and a source familiar with Gillibrand’s schedule. Both senators said they had previous commitments scheduled.
Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a statement, said, “Finally, nothing can get in the way of our first responders getting the help they are due and they very much need.”
He added: “It has been a long struggle, but because of the courage of the many who joined the cause, the memory of people like James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, Luis Alvarez and so many others will live on in this law.”
Gillibrand, in a tweet, said: “To everyone who worked on getting this passed: Thank you for your tireless work and dedication. And to our 9/11 first responders: Thank you will never be enough.”
The former talk show host was angered that only six lawmakers were at a subcommittee hearing to hear first responders' appeals.