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BY JACKSON CHEN
The thousands of rescue and recovery workers who risked their lives at Ground Zero — often called the “forgotten heroes” of the 9/11 attacks — will finally be remembered with a permanent monument at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, according to Gov, Andrew Cuomo.
On May 30, Cuomo, joined by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart announced plans to honor the effort and sacrifice of recovery workers with a commemorative space and walkway located on the Memorial Glade.
“Thousands of people converged at the World Trade Center site immediately after the attacks to show the world that our city and our country were not defeated,” said Bloomberg, who is chairman of the Memorial and Museum. “We owe these men and women of the recovery a great debt of gratitude, and they deserve a fitting tribute for their courage, sacrifice and bravery.”
The memorial’s announcement fell on the 15th anniversary of the formal end of the 9/11 recovery operations where workers spent nearly nine months sifting through nearly two million tons of toxic rubble and debris, searching first for survivors, then for remains — unwittingly turning themselves in to casualties as well.
As evidence built that their deaths and illnesses were linked to the exposure of working at Ground Zero, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to look after those affected finally passed Congress, but only after a long, bitter, partisan fight. The act belatedly funded health care and screening for those exposed to the toxic dust and fumes that spewed for months from the smoldering wreckage at Ground Zero.
The destruction of the twin towers directly killed 2,996 people and injured more than 6,000 others in just a few terrifying moments, but over the 15 years since then, the toxins released by the collapse have killed at least 322 recovery workers and volunteers as of 2011, and sickened 17,439, according to the World Trade Center General Responders Data as of 2015 — and many of those illnesses are in reality slow-motion death sentences.
Of course those are just the victims we know about — those who have come forward, suspecting that their illnesses might be related to Ground Zero and registering for the Zadroga Act health screenings.
According to Dr. Roberto Lucchini, the director of the World Trade Center Data Center, any particular recovery worker could also be affected by multiple conditions following their work at Ground Zero, and may not even realize it if they don’t get screened.
Ground Zero recovery worker and former Lindenhurst Fire Department Capt. George Oates was diagnosed with 9/11-related cancer in 2007, but the former firefighter took pains to point out that it wasn’t just those in the uniformed services who risked their health at Ground Zeron, by plenty of civilian volunteers as well. He recalled those days before the dust had even settled, with his friends and fellow volunteers giving out water, washing dirt off people, and clearing rubble.
“It’s not just the first responders that get sick. I had other friends down there that are sick today and they were recovery workers,” Oates said. “We got to remember them too and they were recognized, and I thought that was fantastic.”
Passage of the Zadroga act came nearly ten years after 9/11, after many rescue and recovery workers had already succumbed, and likewise, the move last month to commemorate them as part of the National September 11 Memorial could seem to come too late.
Cuomo’s announcement also came two days after the death of Ray Pfeifer, a firefighter who worked at Ground Zero for weeks following 9/11. A dedicated advocate for passage of the Zadroga Act and enhancing healthcare for his fellow recovery workers, Pfeifer died on May 28 — eight years after being diagnosed with Ground Zero-related cancer.
As with the belated passage of the Zadroga Act, advocates for 9/11 recovery workers see the dedicated memorial as a positive step that was long overdue.
“I think it’s sorely needed, considering the work that these people did,” said Lee Ielpi, the co-founder of the 9/11 Tribute Museum, who lost his son in the attack and spend time on the pile searching for his body. “I don’t know if anyone really understood the stress they had to go through.”