As we rapidly approach the 10th anniversary, the tragedy of September 11, 2001 is on the minds of all New Yorkers and the nation. Yet no one is more keenly aware of the decade that has elapsed as the brave men and women still suffering the consequences of their noble actions following the attacks: First Responders.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Americans looked to police officers, firefighters, EMTs, contractors and volunteers to recover survivors and remove dangerous debris so that the city and its residents could move forward. In the process, they became heroes and powerful symbols of this country's resilience. Politicians used them as examples of American values; the media transformed them into icons.
But, along the way, our government seems to have forgotten them.
Recently, New York City officials announced that there would be no room at the commemorative events at Ground Zero for the very people who sacrificed their health -- and in some cases their lives.
With each year that passes, more and more of those First Responders succumb to their illnesses and injuries sustained during the rescue and recovery efforts. Many of those who remain suffer from agonizing ailments from which they will never fully recover. Excluding this already-dwindling group of heroes due to "space constraints" while including politicians, who squabble over the chance to get in front of the cameras, is a national shame.
Unfortunately, this is only the most recent in a series of shocking exclusions of our 9/11 heroes. While the federal government has taken some steps toward compensating victims of the tragedy at Ground Zero, it has also repeatedly omitted some of the most deserving and needy victims: First Responders who have developed deadly cancers.
Last week, the Fire Department offered a glimpse into a study to be released later this month -- its findings corroborate what our heroes already knew: there is a clear connection between 9/11 and cancer.
My colleagues and I have worked with many of these First Responders in their attempt to get help from the country they served during the rescue and recovery efforts, so they can make the most of living with deadly and debilitating diseases that resulted from their admirable actions. These are people you would be proud to know and who have never asked for anything more than the small bit of compassion and compensation.
Take Richard Dambakly, a former telecommunications worker who rushed to the World Trade Center with a generator moments after the first plane hit the north tower. In subsequent weeks, he spent every waking hour laying cables amidst the rubble so that rescue workers could stay in contact with hospital dispatchers while they combed the site for survivors. Inhaling and exhaling toxic dust for 16 hours a day soon gave way to lymphoma and blood cancer. Today, Richard doesn't know if his disease has returned -- he is uninsured and cannot afford a routine CAT scan.
First Responders like Richard, who missed earlier compensation often because their illnesses did not fully manifest until after those opportunities had passed, believed that they would finally find the support they needed when the Zadroga Bill re-opened the Victims Compensation Fund early this year. But, just a month ago, they were told that they would again be excluded as the government, that promised to care for them, had failed to undertake the studies necessary to scientifically prove the obvious link between exposure at Ground Zero and cancer.
We will continue fighting for these extraordinary men and women until they receive the care they deserve and ensure that the federal government makes right on its promise and its fundamental responsibility to care for our heroes.
For the sake of decency and for the sake of our city's continued recovery from this tragedy, New York City must place these heroic survivors' front and center at the commemoration and demonstrate our collective appreciation for those who did not hesitate to rush to our aid 10 years ago. We need to do right by our 9/11 heroes.