A bill passed by the U.S. Congress Wednesday to pay for medical care for rescue workers after the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York was cheered by political leaders and the emergency workers at a ceremony near the Trade Center site on Thursday.
The bill provides over $4 billion of aid to rescue and construction workers who labored for months in the toxic fumes of the destroyed World Trade Center. It was the last legislative action before congress adjourned and, before its final approval, passage had been very doubtful. Opponents were concerned about the cost of the legislation as well as the possibility of fraudulent health claims. But a final compromise attracted enough votes to allow passage.
A group of legislators appeared at a ceremony to cheer the bill, just meters from where the World Trade Center's two towers once stood. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes the World Trade Center site, called passage of the bill truly a great day. He noted that the Trade Center buildings were attacked nine years ago and he began to work on legislation to assist ailing rescue workers two years later.
"For nine years, people have asked the question, would the United States honor its obligations to the heroes of 9/11? With this bill we answer that question. We redeem the honor of the United States, and we demonstrate that the United States does not forget those who serve it," he said.
Appearing at the ceremony, wearing their distinct red jackets, were a number of responders who had worked for years to see passage of the legislation. Among them was Gene Klein, a former police officer who served with an emergency service unit at the Trade Center site. He said he had a mixed reaction to the bill because of the last-minute compromise changes, lowering the total cost of the measure.
"I'm happy that the bill passed. I'm not happy that it was butchered up the way it was. But to give these responders who have been suffering for the last nine years something is better than nothing at all," he said.
John Feal, a construction worker injured at the Trade Center, helped lead the effort for the health bill. "This bill is going to save lives and while it's not perfect, on a scale of one to 10, I'd give it a seven. And last time I checked, seven will save lives. If we came back with zero, it would have done nothing for us," he said.
Rhonda Villamia worked for nine months at the ruins of the Trade Center for the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. "I do believe it will help because there are the various programs, the monitoring and treatment programs that are treating and monitoring our illnesses. So this bill will enable them to continue and to perhaps improve the programs," he said.
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, joining other political leaders at the outdoor ceremony marking passage of the health bill, said the United States at long last had done its duty. "And I think it's fitting that yesterday's (Wednesday) action in congress came at the same time that we celebrated another milestone here at the World Trade Center site. Yesterday we re-planted what has become to be known as the survivor tree, one that was found charred and twisted under the rubble after 9/11 and then was nursed back to health over the last nine years. And that tree I think now stands as a living symbol of our resilience and our endurance in the face of tragedy. Yesterday's actions on Capitol Hill were a testament to that spirit too," he said.
The bill provides $1.8 billion over the next five years to treat illnesses resulting from exposure to the toxic environment at the Trade Center site. It provides another $2.5 billion for a victim compensation fund.