Workers survey the ruins of the World Trade Center in...

Workers survey the ruins of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, as cleanup and searching for victims continued. (Oct. 2, 2001) Credit: AP

Champions of the first responders at the World Trade Center who developed asthma, bronchial disorders and other conditions in the years after the terrorist attacks applauded Wednesday's passage of the 9/11 health care bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

To those seeking medical care, compensation and health care monitoring, it was six years in the making.

"To me it's bittersweet because it should have happened long ago," said John Feal of the FealGood Foundation, a first-responder advocacy group in Nesconset.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act would reopen the original federal Victim Compensation Fund, making more money available for treating first responders and nearby residents made ill after the attacks. The deadline to apply for benefits from the original fund expired in December 2003.

"If they had been sick the way they are today in 2003, they would have been compensated," said Marvin Bethea, president and co-founder of Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes in North Bellmore. "It's unconscionable."

Bethea, 50, was a paramedic based at St. John's Queens Hospital in Elmhurst when the World Trade Center was hit and helped search for victims at the site. He said his previous two-medication-a-day routine changed drastically when he developed asthma, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and restricted-airway disease. Now it's 10 to 15 pills daily.

"You don't realize how important health is until you don't have it," said Bethea, who called the passage of the Zadroga Act "a step in the right direction."

Feal arranged for four busloads - three from Long Island - of police officers, construction workers, EMTs and volunteers to travel to Washington to attend the proceedings. Bethea said first responders sick with 9/11 health conditions live in 429 of the nation's 435 congressional districts.

"It's the long-term funding that is the greatest advantage because it allows people to be cared for in a way they should be cared for," said Melodie Guerrera, director of administration for the Long Island World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment program. "This is a major hurdle overcome."

But the bill still has to pass the Senate. "I really can't enjoy it until it passes the Senate and is signed by the president," Feal said. "I know we have a lot of work left."

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