In Legislation, Never Forget the Heroes Act, September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, Updates

I attended yesterday’s hearing on the Never Forget the Heroes Act: Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Rep. Peter King (R-NY), and the panel of witnesses, Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya, Lila Nordstrom, FBI Agent Thomas J. Mohnal (Ret.), FDNY Lt. Michael O’Connell (Ret.), Jacqueline Moline, M.D., Anesta Maria St. Rose Henry, NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez (Ret.), and 9/11 Responder and Survivor Advocate Jon Stewart, all gave compelling testimony in favor of making the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) permanent by passing the Never Forget the Heroes Act (NFHA).

The testimony of VCF Special Master Rupa Bhattacharya and Dr. Jacqueline Moline outlined the dire need to extend the VCF, as they explained how the number of victims suffering and dying from 9/11-related illnesses is skyrocketing while the available funds are dwindling. Lila Nordstrom, Thomas J. Mohnal, Lt. Michael O’Connell, Anesta Maria St. Rose Henry, and Ret. Det. Luis Alvarez all explained in heart wrenching terms how 9/11-related cancer and illnesses affected them and claimed the lives of their loved ones. During this part of the hearing, not a single eye was dry as everyone in the room sympathized with their fellow Americans who have lost so much. What did they lose? As Jon Stewart hammered home while holding back tears of his own, “their most valuable commodity: time.” The most precious thing we have is time, and Mr. Stewart made it abundantly clear that countless years of American life were lost due to 9/11-related toxins and the government’s failure to protect its citizens.

I found it inspiring to watch Mr. Stewart advocate so fiercely while remaining professional and focused, even while overcome with emotion caused by watching the friends he made along his crusade suffer and die. It was also refreshing to see someone on the national stage who simply wants to help others with no strings attached and no other motive. His authenticity is obvious and his message is loud, clear, and to the point. These are qualities most lawyers and politicians can only dream of.

It was truly heartbreaking to watch and listen to NYPD Det. Alvarez testify before Congress the day prior to his scheduled 69th round of chemotherapy. This man has been through hell. While anyone else in his position would barely have the energy to move out of bed, Det. Alvarez was in Washington, selflessly doing his best to explain the need to extend the VCF for others in his position.

The testimony of Det. Luis Alvarez touched a nerve. Our firm represents many NYPD detectives suffering from 9/11-related cancers and I’ve heard all of their stories – some similar to Det. Alvarez’s. In addition to responding to the attacks on 9/11, during the months following the 9/11 attacks, NYPD Detectives spent countless hours sifting through toxic debris by hand to identify remains and personal belongings of those who died. This work brought much needed closure to the families of the victims but came at great cost to the families of the detectives. These heroes are now coming down with horrible, aggressive, and rare 9/11-related cancers that are killing them prematurely, leaving their own families devastated.

FDNY Lt. Michael O’Connell told a story common about 9/11 first responders. A dire diagnosis of a deadly disease at an age far too young. Lt. O’Connell was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a lung disease that is becoming more and more prevalent among those exposed to 9/11 toxic dust. This was initially diagnosed as late-stage cancer, causing Lt. O’Connell and his family the scare of a lifetime. I’ve had clients tell me the same story, but to be clear, being told you’ve been misdiagnosed with cancer and instead have sarcoidosis is far from good news. Lt. O’Connell’s early years with his child were spent fighting this oftentimes fatal disease for which there is no cure. Lt. O’Connell’s reminded me of Lt. Baione’s story, my grandfather whose very premature death by cancer was linked to inhaling toxins at the New York Telephone Company Fire of 1975. Lt. O’Connell felt lucky to be alive, but he made clear that he felt the need to do so because many of his fallen FDNY brothers, like Ray Pfiefer, could no longer do so.

Later in the day, the bill was reviewed by the full Judiciary Committee. Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered on his promise to put it up for a vote as soon as possible because today, the full Committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill with no amendments or changes, moving it out of Committee and on to the full House for a floor vote.

Jon Stewart has made headlines for calling out House Representatives who failed to attend the hearing, and for forcing 9/11 responders and victims to continue to beg for continued benefits 18 years after the attacks.

Stewart said “More of these men and woman are going to get sick and they’re going to die, and I’m awfully tired of hearing this is a ‘New York issue.’ Al-Qaeda didn’t shout ‘death to Tribeca.’ They attacked America…Why this bill isn’t unanimous consent, and a standalone issue is beyond my comprehension.”

Since the VCF cut awards in February, I have had some of the most difficult conversations of my legal career, and in my life. I have had to explain to a client’s wife that her husband’s claim has been cut by 95%. Her husband, fighting terminal cancer, cares about one thing – protecting his family. In 2019, that means protecting their financial security after he is gone. He is being robbed of that security for no other reason than a legislative oversight on funding.

This is a minor math issue that is causing pain and hardship of epic proportions to a community that is already suffering so terribly.

Thank you to all of yesterday’s speakers, the 9/11-survivor advocacy groups, my colleagues in the legal field, to all of the over 300 sponsors in the House of Representatives, and to all of the 39 sponsors in the Senate. They recognize the duty this country owes to 9/11 victims, and the vital importance of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

It is time to swiftly pass the Never Forget the Heroes Act. Forcing 9/11 victims to fight for what is owed to them 18 years later is bad enough. End this now. Pass the Never Forget the Heroes Act. Make the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund permanent. #Renew911VCF

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