Firefighters head toward the World Trade Center site after the collapse...

Firefighters head toward the World Trade Center site after the collapse of one of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Stan Honda

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Long Islanders flocked to Ground Zero to help. Firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians and other first responders headed to the pile, first to help with rescue efforts, then with recovery and cleanup. Some spent weeks or months digging through the wreckage, patrolling the area, breathing toxic air.

Now, they are still getting sick.

And if they're not sick yet, they could still fall ill in the future.

That's where the New York State Workers' Compensation Board comes in. For those who worked on the recovery and cleanup, but weren't members of specific entities like the New York police or fire departments, filing a claim with the state compensation board is a critical step to ensure they get the lost wages and other benefits they deserve — even if they're not sick now.

Time is of the essence. The deadline to file a claim is Sept. 11, 2022. It's a deadline that's been extended a few times, but there's no indication it will be pushed back again. Any Long Islander who breathed in Ground Zero's deadly dust should file a claim — now.

This state process is separate from that of the federal Victim Compensation Fund and World Trade Center Health Program, which are open more widely to anyone who lived or worked in the area, or who responded to the tragedy, and which address more than lost wages and benefits. The state board has different restrictions and timetables, and each first responder should complete the paperwork to determine which programs work best for them.

But another, more worrisome, deadline looms. The World Trade Center Health Program is quickly running out of money, as more people with more conditions sign on, and as inflation leads to rising costs and higher claims. The program could run out of funds in 2025; some observers think federal officials will have to start limiting spending by October 2024. There's a proposed fix, in the 9/11 Responder and Survivor Funding Correction Act. Republican Rep. Andrew Garbarino sponsored the bill last year, along with fellow New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. All New York lawmakers support it, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is right to prioritize getting it passed. But so far, the bill remains in limbo.

It doesn't matter how it gets done — whether as a solo bill or part of larger must-pass legislation. Fixes must be made so there's no break in coverage. Every representative and senator should support them. We shouldn't still have to fight for our 9/11 heroes' lives.

Together, the federal and state programs are critical to helping our first responders and others. Many more will get sick. Many more will die. We have to do what we can to help them. And we can't wait until deadlines arrive to act.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.