WASHINGTON – The House on Friday passed a bill that aims to keep aid flowing to thousands of people who still suffer from physical and psychic damage stemming from the terrorist attack that knocked down the World Trade Center's twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
It's a bill that matters to dozens of Western New Yorkers: state police officers, firefighters and the men and women of the National Guard who responded to the attack.
They spent days breathing the noxious fumes and lung-clogging dust that filled the skies of lower Manhattan. And now some of them are getting sick, often with rare forms of cancer.
Those people could not be happier that the House on Friday voted to replenish a fund that's set to run out of money next year.
"I think it's extremely important," said Jennifer Czarnecki of Hamburg, an 18-year veteran of the State Police who served in New York after 9/11 and who now suffers from a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer.
Czarnecki found out how important the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund is after her diagnosis last year, when she learned that the fund would cover her medical expenses even if her insurance wouldn't.
"When I finally knew that it would be covered, it took a tremendous amount of anxiety and stress away from me," she said.
'A nation was attacked'
There's no official public tally of the number of Western New Yorkers who are eligible for help under the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.
But more than 50 local people have won recognition from the State Senate for their service on and after 9/11, and many of them attended an April rally in Buffalo aimed at building support for making the fund permanent.
"Some have tried to suggest that this is some sort of special legislation for New York City," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who attended that rally and pushed for the fund's extension. "But the fact is a nation was attacked in New York City – and a nation responded."
That's just what Czarnecki did. She arrived in New York on Sept. 15, 2001, to help with basic police work. She ended up working five weeks of 12-hour days there.
"You'd be walking through ash, and it would be coming up past your ankles," recalled Czarnecki, now 46.
Czarnecki said it's no wonder that thousands of people who were in New York after the attacks ended up falling ill, sometimes years later.
The government has split $5 billion among more than 22,000 people who already have been able to prove they have suffered dire health effects due to 9/11.
David J. State, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's general counsel, is among those eligible for aid under the program.
A member of a National Guard unit from Buffalo, State spent about a month in the fall of 2001 providing perimeter security at ground zero.
"My biggest memory is this acrid sort of smell and smoke that was still in the air, even several days later," said State, now 56.
Seventeen years later, State, who had no family history of cancer, was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He received inpatient treatment at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center for several months last year, including a stem cell transplant.
State said he's luckier than some 9/11 victims, in that he has good health insurance that covers his care. But he noted that being certified as a 9/11 victim allows researchers to study his case, along with others, as they try to understand the health impacts of the terrorist attack and to find ways to treat the conditions stemming from it.
And not all the conditions stemming from it are physical in nature.
John Asklar, a Niagara Falls firefighter, happened to be in New York for training in September 2001. It quickly became on-the-job training, as he and his colleagues rushed to ground zero on his second day there, which was Sept. 11.
Asklar, 57, has suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome ever since. Yet he acknowledges that his suffering doesn't compare to that of some of the other people he worked with on 9/11. A colleague from Niagara Falls suffered knee and back injuries and died of complications from pain medications a couple of years later. Another colleague died of 9/11-related cancer.
The federal fund provides compensation to the families of those who died of 9/11 complications as well as those who remain ill.
"This is so important that this bill goes through – because there's so many people that are still suffering and that need to be taken care of," Asklar said.
An odd political battle
Re-created in 2011 – eight years after it first expired – and replenished in 2015, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund will dwindle to extinction without congressional action.
And until recently, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had given no sign that he would allow a vote on a measure to extend the fund's life.
But that was before last month's odd public spat between comedian Jon Stewart – a longtime advocate for the 9/11 families – and McConnell.
"This has never been dealt with compassionately by Senator McConnell," Stewart said on Fox News. "He has always held out until the very last minute, and only then, under intense lobbying and public shaming, has he even deigned to move on it."
McConnell then agreed to meet with some of the 9/11 victims and to hold a vote on the measure in August.
"I don't know why [Stewart's] all bent out of shape, but we will take care of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund," McConnell told reporters.
Meanwhile, the House moved forward, passing the bill extending the fund through the year 2090 in a 402-12 vote on Friday. All of Western New York's federal lawmakers voted for the measure.
"These were people, men and women, who answered the call, responded to ground zero," said Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican. "They did yeoman's work in response to that horrific situation. And anyone who suffered any injury as a result of that heroic action rightfully deserves to have our support in perpetuity."
That's just what Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has been saying for years. The driving force behind reviving the fund in 2011 and renewing it four years later, Gillibrand now has garnered a filibuster-proof majority to pass the fund's permanent reauthorization.
"The Senate Majority Leader gave his commitment to get this bill done in the next two weeks and we now have 72 bipartisan cosponsors – which means there are no excuses," Gillibrand said Friday. "It would be unconscionable for the Senate to ask 9/11 responders to spend any more of their precious time walking the halls of Congress and fighting to make the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund permanent."