NEW HAVEN >> According to U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, it was Congress’ turn to play the role of first responder and answer the call.
The senators, both D-Conn., were referring to the extension of programs created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when fire, police and other first responders suffered physical injuries including exposure to toxins. The World Trade Center Health Program and September 11th Victim Compensation Fund were created nearly a decade later to support those men and women.
The two funds recently received permanent extensions, after votes in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The World Trade Center Health Program had expired in October 2015 and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was set to follow in October 2016 prior to the extensions, which received “broad bipartisan support,” according to a release from Blumenthal and Murphy.
“(First responders) went to that site without knowing what they would encounter, without asking what the dangers were. They demonstrated their bravery and now the nation has demonstrated its faith in them,” Blumenthal said.
The senators were in New Haven — and later Hartford — Tuesday to celebrate the extensions of the programs. They were joined at the New Haven Fire Academy by Assistant Chief of Operations Matthew Marcarelli; Peter Carozza, president of the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters of Connecticut; Local 825 fire union President Frank Ricci; and about a dozen firefighters in training.
“The fire community is a tight-knit community. I don’t think there’s a firefighter in the city that doesn’t have a personal connection with a brother or sister firefighter in New York,” Ricci said.
In Connecticut, 381 first responders and 48 survivors receive benefits from the World Trade Center Health Program, according to a release by the senators, and 38 Connecticut residents already have received compensation from the victim compensation fund.
“I think it’s an abomination that we have to have this press conference today,” Murphy said. “I think it’s an outrage that we have to be announcing, 15 years after the fact, that we are finally living up to our commitment to take care of the first responders who put their lives on the line over the course of weeks and months at that site.”
Murphy talked about the “2,000 tons of asbestos that pushed out from the site” at Ground Zero and personal stories, such as the retired Port Authority policeman he knows who worked at the site from September 12, 2001, to May 2002 and now has a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which increases the risk of throat cancer.
“The stories continue to multiply of the lives that have changed because of the illnesses than they contracted from breathing in those toxic chemicals,” Murphy said.
In all, 343 firefighters lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001. According to data provided by the senators, roughly 33,000 of the 70,000 who worked at Ground Zero in some capacity have an injury or illness related to this work, 4,000 of which were cancer.
“For firefighters in particular this is a very big deal for us. I’ve attended many funerals in New York City for New York firefighters who have succumbed to illness post-9/11,” Marcarelli said.
Both programs have been reauthorized via the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act. The act was named after a New York police detective who died of a respiratory disease in 2006 and was known for his rescue efforts in the aftermath of 9/11.
“I feel that it’s very important to know that we’re going to be supported,” said Tomas Reyes, 36, a member of the firefighter class that is set to graduate next Tuesday. “Our two senators definitely had our backs and came to bat for the finances to help families recover.”