CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – Reauthorized legislation has given peace of mind to hundreds of 9/11 first responders and their families – but not without a fight.
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act expired at the end of September, putting critical health monitoring, services and treatment in limbo for thousands of people affected by the September 11 terror attacks. Signed into law by President Obama in 2011, the Zadroga Act established the World Trade Center Health Program and re-opened a victim compensation fund.
While the Zadroga Act expired last year, funding for it was set to run out in 2016 without reauthorization. Lawmakers failed to renew the Zadroga Act as stand-alone legislation amid concerns of logistics and funding. It was eventually rolled into the massive Omnibus spending bill signed by President Obama in December.
Among the first responders covered under the WTC Health Program is Myrtle Beach Fire Lieutenant Richard LaPera.
“To be quite honest with you, I didn’t think [the reauthorization] was going to pass,” LaPera admitted. “I’m very happy it did.”
LaPera was due on evening shift as a sergeant with the New York City Police Department on September 11, 2001.
“My sister actually called me because I didn’t have the TV on and said a plane just flew into the World Trade Center. I was like, ‘Planes just don’t fly into the Trade Center,’” he recalled.
LaPera immediately left his house that morning and rushed to Ground Zero.
“It’s just paper burning. They were pulling people from the site and they were coming towards us and trying to direct them to where they needed to go,” LaPera explained. “If anybody was to say there was no fear involved, I don’t think they’d be telling you the truth.”
Doctors diagnosed him a few years after the September 11 attacks with gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD. They tied it to 9/11.
“You don’t think, ‘Oh yeah, all that debris is on your food. All the stuff you’re drinking. It’s in the clothes you’re wearing. At the time, you don’t think about it,” he said.
According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, approximately 323 first responders and residents are enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program. Officials say 154 people in South Carolina are also eligible for compensation from the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Approximately 30% of people living in South Carolina who are enrolled in the WTC Health Program live in the state’s 7th congressional district.
“People have moved from New York to Horry County or the 7th congressional district and that number will continue to grow over the years because of people moving to the district and people being diagnosed with the issues,” Myrtle Beach Professional Fire Fighters IAFF Local 2345 President Seith Holzopfel said.
Today, the WTC Health Program tracks the health of more than 71,000 people exposed to the World Trade Center disaster. It covers several health issues and illnesses, ranging from specific forms of cancer and asthma to anxiety disorders and musculoskeletal disorders.
“9/11 first responders were basically in a toxic soup at Ground Zero,” Holzopfel told News13. “Yes, they were wearing respirators of that nature, but they were also absorbing asbestos and other things into their skin.”
Holzopfel helped lobby to continue the program and push for the reauthorization of the Zadroga Act. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC).
“I’d thank them for the vote in the long run [be]cause it will cover the 300 firefighters. I wish we would’ve had more support when it was a stand-alone bill so we could say certain politicians stand up for the firefighters,” he said.”
The reauthorization of the Zadroga Act extends health benefits for 9/11 first responders, victims and survivors until the year 2090.