A Win For Heroes

Photographer Peter Foley spent months documenting the aftermath of 9/11.
Photographer Peter Foley spent months documenting the aftermath of 9/11.

By Tom Deignan, Columnist
August / September 2019

9/11 Bill Passes the Senate.

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New Yorkers were sweating through a brutal heat wave at the end of July this year when grim news began circulating, from Briggs Avenue in the Bronx and East 111th Street in Harlem to the quieter suburbs of Westchester County and the historically Irish enclaves in Long Island and the New York City boroughs, where generations of New York City cops, firefighters, and other civil servants settled to raise families.

Two more firefighters had died from 9/11-related illnesses: Kevin Nolan, 58, who retired out of Engine 79 in the Bronx in 2007, and Richard Driscoll, a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran, who retired out of Harlem’s Engine 91 in 2002.

Nolan and Driscoll were, respectively, the 199th and 200th members of the FDNY to die from illnesses related to the time they spent at the wreckage of the World Trade Center site, searching for potential survivors and victims.

“Another grim milestone,” read the front page of the New York Daily News, over the larger headline: “No End to Tragedy.”

That both Driscoll and Nolan were Irish-American illustrates the tremendous contributions Irish first responders made in the wake of the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. All these years later, Irish-American firefighters, police officers, EMTs, construction workers, and others are wrestling with the long-term health effects – and costs – of breathing in toxic dust during the search, rescue, and clean-up phases at “the pile” in lower Manhattan, and the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island.

“The lingering effects of 9/11 have no precedent in the long history of the FDNY,” Irish-American historian Terry Golway told Irish America in 2015. Golway’s father was a firefighter, and his books include So Others Might Live, a history of the FDNY.

Billions of Dollars

Worse, even as the terror attacks continue to take a toll – with the 18th anniversary of 9/11 coming this September – billions of dollars in government aid for first responders and their families has been bottled up in Washington. In fact, the 200th death of a New York City firefighter came just as Congress fiercely debated how to – or even if they should – fund an extension of previous bills designed to assist 9/11 victims.

But the tireless advocacy of first responders – with the help of a bold-faced name – eventually paid off. At the end of July, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act.”

The bill – with a long-term price tag of over $10 billion – is designed to avoid the acrimonious debates that have popped up every few years related to funding 9/11 health issues.

“The country has moved on, and rightfully so,” Michael O’Connell, a retired Irish-American FDNY lieutenant, told The New York Times after the bill was passed. He added: “(But) it’s in front of our eyes. We’re in hospices. We’re seeing people pass away right in front of our very eyes.”

The moment the healthcare legislation passed, retired cops, firefighters, and other advocates, “leapt to their feet in the usually hushed (Senate) chamber to lead a standing ovation,” the Times reported, while outside the Senate chambers, “they choked back tears, embraced, and clapped one another on the back.”

“Incredible Metaphor”

But aside from being bittersweet – given all the pain and suffering, nearly two decades later – this legislative victory was also never guaranteed.

Back in June, actor and comedian Jon Stewart – a longtime advocate for 9/11 survivors – joined a group of first responders in Washington to lobby for permanent aid. But it appeared that numerous members of the House sub-committee either did not attend the meeting or were moving back and forth between different meetings. In short, the meeting seemed sparsely attended, which did not sit well with Stewart.

“Why this bill doesn’t have unanimous consent is beyond my comprehension,” he said, later adding: “As I sit here today, I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting healthcare and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to. Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.”

The hearing also featured a gaunt, retired New York City police detective – whose name had been lent to the legislation – Luis Alvarez. Media accounts featured photos of a strapping Alvarez from a decade ago, in stark contrast to the frail figure, who endured dozens of chemotherapy treatments during his battle with colorectal cancer.

“I will not stand by and watch as my friends with cancer from 9/11 like me are valued less than anyone else because of when they get sick. 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 told congressional reps.

“I’m lucky to have the healthcare that I’ve got, but there are guys out there who don’t have it,” Alvarez said in a later interview with Fox News. “In terms of going through the stress of fighting cancer, they’re also fighting the financial stress of the healthcare.”

Alvarez added: “I’m no one special, and I did what all the other guys did. Now we are paying the price for it. I got sick 16 years after the fact. And there’s workers out there who say, ‘This isn’t going to happen to me. I’m O.K. The time has passed.’ The time doesn’t … is not going to pass.”

Alvarez died as the bill he lent his name to was still being debated. He was 53.

“Hypocrites…Bottom-feeders”

The House eventually passed the 9/11 bill by an overwhelming majority. However, when it moved on to the Senate, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul voiced concerns about the bill’s cost – and government debt in general.

“We’re adding debt at about a trillion dollars a year,” Paul said. “Any new spending we are approaching, any new program that’s going to have the longevity of 70, 80 years should be offset by cutting spending that’s less valuable. We need to, at the very least, have this debate.”

This did not sit well with prominent advocate John Feal, a construction worker severely injured during the 9/11 clean-up.

“They’re hypocrites at best. No, not only are they hypocrites, they’re bottom-feeders. They’re opportunists,” said Feal, of Sen. Paul, as well as Sen. Mike Lee, of Utah, both self-described fiscal conservatives, who voiced concerns about the health bill’s cost.

Paul and Lee ended up as the only two senators voting against the 9/11 health bill, which President Donald Trump eventually signed into law.

Meanwhile, the grim toll kept mounting: Just before passing the “Never Forget the Heroes” bill, Staten Island resident and retired NYPD detective, Christopher Cranston – who spent months at both Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills landfill after the terror attacks – died from 9/11-related cancer.

He was 48 years old. ♦

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