From Michael McAuliff of the New York Daily News
First responders and Ground Zero workers are pleased Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is headed to New York to face justice – but they hope to win a different kind of justice of their own.
“Eight years later they finally bring the terrorists to New York and eight years later we’re still waiting for help” treating 9/11-related illnesses, said John Feal. “It doesn’t equate,” added Feal, who heads the FealGood Foundation, devoted to raising awareness about the health crisis. He and busloads of survivors and victims held a rally Wednesday in Washington.
The FealGood Foundation holds a press conference earlier this year at the scene of the 9/11 attacks (photo by Schwartz for News)
They’re demanding Congress act on legislation named after James Zadroga, an NYPD officer who died from his exposure to Ground Zero. The proposal would spend about $8 billion to reopen the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation fund to care for the illnesses suffered by the responding heroes.
“I’m going to be focused on getting that bill passed,” said Glen Klein, a former NYPD Emergency Service Unit officer who spent 700 hours at Ground Zero. “It’s time.”
It’s the same two words Jim Ryan wanted to tell Congress Wednesday hoping to join hundreds of his fellow Sept. 11 responders on their journey to Capitol Hill. But he couldn’t make it.
He’s dying himself.
“I was a 46-year-old firefighter, working at my job in April 2006,” said the husband and father of two teenage boys and a 9-year-old daughter. His doctor thought he had gallstones, but it was pancreatic cancer, a deadly illness more common in older men. The fire department eventually agreed the cancer was from 9/11, and he retired.
He beat it once.
Then came the relapse last November – and more treatments. His doctor can’t do any more.
“They just determined last week it wasn’t working. As of right now, I’m not on anything. At this point, I’m just seeking second opinions,” Ryan said. He doesn’t want to ask how much time he has left.
“I don’t believe in deadlines,” he said.
But he wanted to do what he could to push Congress to pass the $8 billion measure. It would reopen the Sept. 11 victims’ compensation fund and provide for the families of the ill and dying.
So Tuesday night he packed some gear in the car of his friend and fellow firefighter, Keith Palumbo, and went to the Engine Co. 320/Ladder 167 firehouse in Flushing for a party that Palumbo arranged so Ryan’s department brothers could see him again before it was too late.
“It was overwhelming,” Ryan said.
But he got violently ill, and it was obvious to his friends that Ryan, who’s lost 50 pounds to his illness, couldn’t make the trip to Washington.
“Keith, he took my bag out of his car and he said, ‘You’re not going.’ He said, ‘You can’t, you’re not physically able to,’” Ryan recalled.
It’s almost the way he felt about the months he spent digging through the voids in the wreckage of the twin towers, searching for the fallen. He tried to explain it to his wife, Magda, when she asked why he wanted to swim in that toxic devastation for so long.
“I told her I don’t. It’s the last place in the world I want to be, but right now, and it’s kind of hard to put it in words, but right now it’s the only place in the world I want be,” Ryan remembered.
There was no internal conflict about going to Washington Wednesday, except that he couldn’t.
“I felt horrible because it’s not only about me,” he said. “It’s about all the guys who are going to come after me, and there’s going to be plenty of them. … I don’t think you’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg yet.”
Ryan and the other advocates say they’ve received assurances that Congress would act this fall. But sources told the Daily News that the battle to overhaul the nation’s health care system comes first – a fight that could extend into next year. Feal said rally goers intend to take their message straight to lawmakers.
“We’re taking three teams into each congressional [office] building,” Feal said Wednesday. “I’m storming the Capitol.”
The Zadroga Act is sitting in Congress, held hostage by the health care reform debate. The House version is all but ready to go. The Senate’s has yet to be discussed in a committee hearing.
Palumbo and others carried the message for Ryan, visiting lawmakers in their black turnout coats. He hopes legislators heard it.
“We’ve got eight guys in the firehouse who have cancer,” Palumbo said after walking the halls of Congress, knocking on doors.
“Hopefully, we prodded them with our tale.”