Toll of 9/11 Heroes Climbs as Zadroga Act Stalls

SI Advance – October 27, 2015

by Tom Wrobleski

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – Every day, it seems, we lose another 9/11 hero.

It’s like Sept. 11, 2001 never ended at all. We are still losing lives to terrorists.

And yet lawmakers in Washington continue to dither when it comes to the Zadroga Act.

This month alone, we’ve lost three people who were 9/11 first responders.

Brian K. Ahr, 49, from the FDNY, died on Oct. 15. No cause was given for his death.

Ronald K. Richards, 45, who was an NYPD detective and Bomb Squad tech, died on Oct. 10, of multiple myeloma. And Dennis J. Heeds, 56, a firefighter, died of lung cancer, also on Oct. 10.

All responded to the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks, when 3,000 people were killed by Al-Qaida terrorists.

At least 25 current or former Staten Islanders who responded to the Twin Towers that day and in the days following have died in the years since the attack.

Many were city firefighters or cops.

They were there after the hijacked planes caused death and devastation. And they worked on the pile in those horrible days and weeks following the attack, cleaning up the wreckage, recovering the remains of our loved ones.

And breathing in the dusty air that was chock-full of toxins. One early estimate said that there might have been as many as 400 pollutants in the air, including asbestos and mercury.

Some of them eventually died of cancer. Cancer of the lung or the kidney. Or the sinus or the colon. The esophagus. Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Multiple myeloma.

Others perished from lung disease or other respiratory ailments.

In fact, in the first years after 9/11, it was respiratory illnesses that took a deadly toll on first responders. In more recent years, it is cancer that has cut a swath.

Way back when, the federal EPA said that the air at Ground Zero was safe to breathe. But a private study in 2006, dismissed by the city, said that 70 percent of those who worked the Twin Towers pile got sick.

In 2004, the director of a medical screening program for World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers warned those who took part in the effort at Ground Zero that they faced a long-term cancer risk from exposure to a “witches’ brew” of carcinogens at Ground Zero.

“This group of first responders has to be followed for at least another 20 years,” Dr. Stephen Levin of Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan told a House subcommittee on emerging threat and national security.

Fourteen years down the road, prophetic words indeed.

And while we can’t definitively say that every first responder who has died of cancer or respiratory illness since 9/11 died because of their work at the World Trade Center, you can’t help but notice the striking similarities in many of their stories.

Congress has failed to permanently extend the James L. Zadroga Health and Compensation Act, meaning that those sick 9/11 first responders who are still among us face losing funds for their medical care and monitoring.

It’s a shameful occurrence in a country that vowed to never forget the 9/11 attacks.

Because “never forgetting” means doing more than paying tribute to those who were taken from us. Holding a memorial service is easy.

It means taking care of those who are still with us, those who voluntarily responded when the city and the nation needed them. Who put their lives on the line.

We need to take care of them, lest their names join the ever-growing list of the dead.

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