Compensation fund could mean ‘life or death’ for 9/11 survivors amid pandemic: advocates

Firefighters waving American flags dashed past the Red Hook starting line of the Tunnel to Towers run on Sept. 11, 2018.
Photo by Trey Pentecost

As the one-year anniversary of the permanent reauthorization of the Sept. 11 Victim’s Compensation Fund passes, first responders and advocates are underscoring its value to survivors of 9/11 — who are particularly susceptible to coronavirus.  

“We lost about two dozen clients [to coronavirus],” said former FDNY Deputy Fire Chief Richie Alles, a first responder out of Canarsie who currently heads 9/11 community affairs at Manhattan-based law firm Barasch McGarry. “It’s unfortunate because this particular group of people was extremely vulnerable to the virus. It’s like salt to the wound.”

The coronavirus pandemic is most threatening to people with respiratory illnesses and weakened immune systems — two of the common long-term effects from the toxic dust and fumes released during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that infected more than 450,000 New Yorkers.  

“Doctors have described the coronavirus as one that is particularly damaging to the respiratory system, and sadly so many from the 9/11 community suffer from asthma, COPD, reactive airways disease and their lungs are particularly vulnerable,” said Michael Barasch, managing partner of Barasch McGarry, a firm representing more than 20,000 people dealing with 9/11-related illnesses.

President Donald Trump signed the permanent authorization of the Sept. 11 Victim’s Compensation Fund into law last July 29 — effectively guaranteeing compensation to those suffering from 9/11 related-diseases, including the 68 types of cancer that have been connected to the tragedy. New York City victims and first responders also have access to free medical care through the World Trade Center Health Program

“I urge everyone to get into these two programs,” Barasch said, adding that federal pay-outs can be as high as $200,000 for those suffering from life-threatening cancers. “It’s free healthcare for the rest of your life and the government is paying out significant compensation.”

But, advocates say, an overwhelming majority of survivors who were not first responders are unaware they are eligible for the benefits.

“I focus on getting the word out to non-responders, the survivor community,” Alles said. “Less than 5 percent of the survivor community is aware of this law and this program.”

For families who may have lost their loved ones, Alles said the Victim’s Compensation Fund can provide a much-needed line of financial support through their hardship. 

“We have a lot of people succumbing to their 9/11 related illness, now a family has lost their primary breadwinner,” Alles said. “And the fund can step in and compensate them for their loss, so it’s a matter of life and death for sure.” 

Despite the traumatic toll 9/11 has taken on New York City in 2001 and 19 years later, the former fire chief said he was surprised to see the city failed to learn their lesson by not properly providing first responders with protective equipment throughout the pandemic. 

“We didn’t learn any of the lessons from 9/11, which PPE was a big part of,” Alles said. “It is unfortunate because this was something well-talked about, so it’s really inexcusable.”