Skip to main content

9/11 responders wait for compensation for their illnesses

By Shirley Henry and Athena Jones, CNN
September 11, 2012 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Zadroga Act set aside funds for those exposed to toxins while working at ground zero
  • A decision on which types of cancer will be covered is expected soon
  • Retired officer Ernie Vallebuona was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • He says he'll "be a happy man" if he can recoup co-payments, parking costs

(CNN) -- When the planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, New York City Police Detective Ernie Vallebuona raced from Staten Island to the site to help look for survivors, along with his fellow police officers.

"It was like a surreal scene. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of smoke," he said. "You couldn't see when you were trying to walk through the smoke to search for survivors. You know, you could barely see your hand in front of you."

Vallebuona spent the next six months at the site. Three years later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphoid tissue. He underwent extensive treatment, including stem cell transplants, radiation and chemotherapy. He is currently in remission. He had to drain his retirement savings to pay for medical bills not covered by insurance.

Firefighters responding to 9/11 at increased cancer risk

Ernie Vallebuona spent six months at ground zero. Three years later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin\'s lymphoma.
Ernie Vallebuona spent six months at ground zero. Three years later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"Most city workers do have health insurance, but unfortunately a catastrophic illness such as cancer or anything like that, you know, not everything is covered," he explained. "There is a lot of expenses that fly under the radar, you don't realize it until you are getting them and like most police officers I know, you are only maybe like three or four paychecks away from the homeless shelter."

Vallebuona is one of thousands of first responders, volunteers and residents who say they became ill as a result of working or living near the attack site.

"People are terribly sick. People can't support their families. People are having trouble getting by," said Noah Kushlefsky, an attorney who represents Vallebuona and 3,800 other first responders.

"I have clients who have been evicted from homes. I have clients who can't pay their rent, their phones have been shut off, and these people are in desperate need of some assistance so that they can live their lives," he said. "These are people that dropped everything and ran down to ground zero to try and help. I have clients who volunteered for the Salvation Army, worked in St. Paul's Church. I have a client from Minnesota who was watching TV, got in his pickup truck, drove to New York, and then spent four months on the pile, and he is so terribly disabled that he can barely walk up the stairs and is on oxygen 24 hours a day."

While 9/11 victims and their families received compensation from the federal government in the years immediately following the attacks, those who came in afterward to help with rescue, recovery and cleanup efforts and then became sick have yet to receive such assistance. For years they were caught up in disputes over whether the air at ground zero was really toxic -- the Environmental Protection Agency long claimed it was safe -- and whether the illnesses could be linked to the attack site.

In January 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Zadroga Act, named after New York Police Detective James Zadroga, who died of a respiratory illness after working at the World Trade Center site. The law sets aside money for medical care and $2.775 billion dollars to compensate claimants for lost wages and other damages related to the illnesses. The money has yet to be dispersed, although lawyers and government officials involved in handling the claims expect payments to some who developed respiratory, digestive and other conditions to begin in the next couple of months.

Triple-amputee veteran gets 'smart' home on September 11

Cancer was initially rejected for coverage under the Zadroga Act, but that decision was reversed earlier this year. On Monday, federal health authorities outlined the 58 types of cancer that will be included.

"I think it is way far overdue as far as being added on," Vallebuona said. "Common sense alone tells you that cancer was all along linked." He went on to list several other police officers he worked with who had gotten cancer.

"What are the odds with all of these people coming down with the same type of, the same exact type of cancer or a linked cancer?" he asked. He said early in his career at the NYPD, he would hear about one case of cancer a year. "Now it's like ... too numerous to even count."

The decision to include cancer has added another layer of complexity to the law's implementation, Kushlefsky said. For one thing, it's possible that some people will not be diagnosed with cancer until years down the road, creating challenges for determining whether the cancer originated because of work at ground zero. More immediately, adding cancer will undoubtedly mean the $2.775 billion dollars set aside for compensation will be exhausted before everyone is taken care of, meaning that Congress will have to step in to provide additional funds.

Kushlefsky is confident that will happen. "I would be shocked if the federal government decided somebody was sick from being down there, has been damaged in a certain amount, and then decided that they're only going to pay a fraction of it," he said. "I mean, it's pretty obvious that at some point the government's going to have no choice but to fully fund this for all covered illnesses."

Vallebuona, now retired from the NYPD, is grateful his cancer is in remission and a little unsure about whether any money will ever come through.

"You know, it's really an unknown," he said. "I'm not sure what it holds. It's been something they've been talking about for 10 years now, and it's always this little carrot dangling."

And if the money does come through, Vallebuona has no idea how much he could get.

"I'm not even thinking about that," he said. "If I can recoup what I lost alone in terms of co-payments and parking garage bills, I will be a happy man."

58 cancers receive 9/11 fund coverage

CNN's NuNu Japaridze contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Remembering 9/11
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
A lot happened in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Here is a look at what has worked, what hasn't and what has to happen now.
May 16, 2014 -- Updated 1454 GMT (2254 HKT)
When do the ordinary -- letters, gloves, wallets -- become extraordinary?
May 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
President Barack Obama marked the dedication of the September 11 Memorial Museum with families, survivors and rescuers at the site.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
The new North Tower is finally high enough to partially restore the skyline I used to see when I stepped outside my home in Greenwich Village.
September 12, 2012 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
For years, Denise Scott and her three daughters thought they had certainty about their loved one's death on September 11, 2001.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
Even by MIT standards, says Tom Leighton, Danny Lewin was special.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1132 GMT (1932 HKT)
Some New Yorkers mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks by going to a memorial service or observing a moment of silence.
September 12, 2013 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Click through our gallery to see how people are remembering the 9/11 anniversary across the nation.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1532 GMT (2332 HKT)
More than a decade after that dreadful day, 9/11 memories are still fresh for the mother who lost her son.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
Reggie Hilaire was a rookie cop on September 11, 2001. He worked at ground zero for 11 days beside his colleagues, not wearing a mask.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
Before September 11, 2001, the easy way to find true north was to use the towers as a reference point. After that day, the compass just spun, as the city struggled to figure out which way to go.
September 11, 2012 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
Two parents share how their youngest child, Peter, was murdered on September 11, 2001, while attending a conference at Windows on the World at the World Trade Center. He was 25 years old.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
See the progress of buildings under construction at the site, as well as memorials.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1712 GMT (0112 HKT)
Here is some background on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Mohammed Hamdani's name isn't among the first responders that are on the 9/11 memorial. But on that day, the 23-year-old certified EMT skipped his job at a university research lab to rushed to the World Trade Center.
September 11, 2012 -- Updated 1350 GMT (2150 HKT)
In the few years immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many travelers avoided flying on that day if they could help it.
October 29, 2012 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Marine Cpl. Juan Dominguez lost three limbs in an explosion in Afghanistan.
Today's fifth-graders were not even born on that day. For them, September 11 is history -- and often, a topic in their history class. And as of last fall, 21 states specifically mentioned 9/11 in their social studies standards.
Although countless Muslims have condemned the acts of 9/11 in the United States and worldwide, American Muslims became objects of suspicion.
September 12, 2012 -- Updated 0253 GMT (1053 HKT)
As memorials recall the victims of 9/11 across the country, our photo gallery will relfect the observed remembrances.
ADVERTISEMENT