NEW YORK—Legislators and citizens gathered at ground zero on July 15 to celebrate the House passage of the Never Forget the Heroes Act.
First responders and victims of 9/11 who are too ill to work will receive continued compensation coverage if the bill passes into law.
Lila Nordstrom is executive director at Stuy Health, a non-profit organization set up to help survivors navigate the World Trade Center Health Program application process. She shared her story with NTD.
“I was in class when the first plane hit,” said Nordstrom, who was a 17-year-old student when the planes hit the World Trade Center across from her classroom at Stuyvesant High School on September 11, 2001. “It was a class that was overlooking the World Trade Center. It was on the tenth floor of the building, and my teacher taught through the collapse of the first building.”
Nordstrom says the dust cloud from the debris only coated one side of the school, and as students evacuated the building on the side free of dust, they could have escaped exposure altogether.
“But we came back to a neighborhood that was fully contaminated, to a school that was fully contaminated, and then we spent eight months breathing in the dust … and smoke from the site,” she said. “The site was on fire until four months after we got back.”
The event recognized the courage of first responders and victims, and celebrated the concerted effort of delegation to pass the bill.
One stoic example is that of former New York City police detective and first responder Luis Alvarez, who died on June 29 after his three-year battle with cancer due to working in the toxic aftermath.
“It’s important that we take care of those who take care of us,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) said. “But we have two moral responsibilities.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) also said that it was a moral issue to make sure first responders and victims were taken care of. “This nation owes a double moral burden—a double moral debt, I should say—to the first responders and the survivors,” he said.
Nordstrom said at the time, there was a lot of pressure from economic forces to return to normalcy. She believes the government sent students back to school as a message for Wall Street that it was safe to return to work.
According to Nordstrom, the students were breathing in toxic dust from the aftermath and cleanup efforts for close to a year, as one of the dumpsites was right next to the school.
After the air ducts at the school were cleaned a year after the attacks, Nordstrom said they were found to have inches of dust from the World Trade Center inside.
“So for us, the exposures really happened in the aftermath of the attacks,” said Nordstrom. “There was no need for us to be part of this population at all.”
Legislators emphasized that officials misrepresented the situation to first responders and survivors.
“It was Federal officials, the head of the EPA, the Bush administration at the time, which assured people that it was safe to return to work,” said Nadler. “[They said] it was safe to go to school, it was safe to work on the pile. When it wasn’t, when we knew it wasn’t.”
Rep. Maloney also asserted the need to care for those suffering from health effects caused by exposure.
“They told them that it was safe to work at the site,” said Maloney. “They went back to the site, and now many of them are sick and dying, and we have a responsibility to take care of them.”
The Never Forget the Heroes Act, passed on July 12 in a vote of 402 to 12, will next move to the Senate floor. If passed there, it will go to the president to be signed into law.
This bill proposes to extend compensation funds to the year 2090 for victims and their families who need financial support.
“This is my bill,” said Maloney. “I worked on it eighteen years; this is what I’m focused on. I’m not going to get involved with any other issue until this bill becomes law—that’s my priority.”
Nordstrom said she feels guilty that her situation was used to bring people back into a harmful environment without her consent.
“Our story of returning was really not about us,” said Nordstrom. “It was about other people: it was about the economy, it was about fears that the stock market would crash, and that the economy would fall apart after 9/11, and because of that we got put in a dangerous situation.”
First responders and victims say they are hoping the bill will pass as soon as possible to ensure they get the support and funding they need.