PORTLAND — On many a firefighter’s leather helmet there is a sticker that says: “9/11 – Never Forget.”

I find myself asking if the U.S. Senate and the nation really feel the same way. I want to believe they do, but time is running out for some of our nation’s most deserving heroes.

In the current lame duck session of Congress, the Senate must decide whether to pass a bill which would provide medical assistance for illnesses contracted by workers at ground zero on 9/11 and in the horrible days which followed.

On a clear September morning in 2001, firefighters and cops worked their way up the stairs of the World Trade Center in a selfless attempt to save as many lives as humanly possible.

Because of them, thousands of people made it out that day. But 60 public safety officers and 343 brothers of the Fire Department City of New York gave it the last full measure, perishing alongside more than 2,000 civilians while we watched with horror as the towers collapsed into clouds of smoke, dust and fire.

The United States of America was viciously attacked that morning, not just New York City.

The lives lost were our first killed in action from our nation’s involvement in two wars that continue to this day.

But the casualties did not end on that morning. In the following weeks, tens of thousands of Americans from all 50 states came to aid New York’s bravest.

They were trained first responders, ironworkers, heavy equipment operators and trade workers – Americans who had the skill and resources to work that acrid, dangerous pile.

They all risked their lives without hesitation in a dangerous and unhealthy environment.

We watched them go about their grim task every day, pausing only as a flag-draped stretcher solemnly emerged from the twisted pile.

We watched as the president of the United States, standing on the smoldering rubble with his arm stretched around a veteran firefighter, promised our nation would not forget their sacrifice, that they would all be taken care of.

Sadly, though, the president’s promise is not being kept. Hundreds of workers who toiled on that pile are now becoming sick with respiratory disease and cancers which are directly related to exposure at ground zero.

Once-healthy individuals now live with dreadful sinus and nasal illnesses from working in toxic dust.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act now before Congress would, among other things, provide for monitoring the health of documented workers at ground zero, providing them medical assistance if they become sick with an illness directly attributed to the work they did in service of their country.

The House passed its version of the bill in September.

It now sits in the Senate, where objection surrounds the manner in which the legislation is funded.

Recently, along with brother firefighters from New York and Boston, I met with numerous congressional delegations, including our own Maine senators, looking for ways to move this bill forward.

We came away with no firm assurances, only an acknowledgment that passage would be the right thing to do.

It is because of the events on 9/11 that this nation went to war.

The men and women who answered the call that morning and in the months afterward, our Domestic Veterans, made the first sacrifice for this nation.

They should be treated in the same manner as those who volunteer in our military. Nothing less will do.

Next year, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, thousands of our sisters and brothers will gather to honor those who died.

Among us will be those who survived the attack and continued to work at ground zero.

Some will be sick and dying from exposure to the aftermath of the fallen towers.

Will our country take care of them in their hour of need?

Do we, as a nation, truly put aside partisan differences in order to take care of those who have died and sacrificed on our behalf?

Or do we only say it when it is politically convenient?

That is the question now before all our senators.

They can show us they acknowledge the courage of those who climbed up the stairs of the Twin Towers, never to return.

They can honor the sacrifice of those who worked ground zero, so that this nation could heal. They can show us that they have not forgotten. It will not be easy, but I want to believe they will.

 

— Special to The Press Herald