Many out-of-town Ground Zero responders learn about help on their own

By Joseph Straw New York Daily News

Within days of 9/11, Brian and Chandra Davis packed their bags and traveled 1,000 miles to help New York dig out from the rubble of the World Trade Center attacks.

The newlyweds from rural Hornbeak, Tenn., were soon sick — with both respiratory and digestive diseases — like so many others who had joined in to help.

But the billions of dollars in health and financial assistance available to those sickened at Ground Zero did not find them. They had to go looking for aid.

“Being as far away from New York as we are, we didn’t know what was going on,” said Brian Davis, a volunteer firefighter limited to desk duty by his health problems and unable to continue his career in construction.

The Davises eventually learned about the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund after Internet searches led them to 9/11 health activist John Feal.

Most workers and volunteers sickened on the Pile have only until Oct. 3 to register with the $2.8 billion fund, which was reestablished by 2011’s James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to cover financial and pain-and-suffering costs.

A federally funded outreach campaign is underway to raise awareness of the deadline, targeting public safety agencies along with municipal and construction unions.

But reaching all the sick among the estimated 100,000 people who helped at Ground Zero has proven daunting, because so many of them are outside the New York area, said Ben Chevat, executive director of the nonprofit 9/11 Health Watch.

“I don’t think people understand that people are still dying a decade after September 11,” Chevat said.

Perry Peake, a battalion chief with the Coronado, Calif., Fire Department, deployed to New York with a San Diego County search and rescue task force.

“It was an honor for us to help those firefighters,” Peake said. “I lost friends. I lost friends we never found.”

He returned home with a cough and was later diagnosed with reactive airway disease.

Like some already in the city Health Department’s WTC Health Registry or enrolled in the national World Trade Center Health Program, Peake learned only recently of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and that he probably qualifies. He found out when contacted by the Daily News.

“I didn’t even know what it is. I didn’t even know what the purpose of it is,” said Peake, 53. “Maybe I’ll register. I have kids.“

Mayor Bloomberg has written to nearly 150 agencies across the country to alert them to the deadline.

The fund is also working with Federal Emergency Management Agency to notify the country’s 28 regional urban search-and-rescue teams, all of which deployed after 9/11 to Manhattan, the Pentagon or to the Shanksville, Pa., area.

September 11 Victim Compensation Fund administrator and Manhattan attorney Sheila Birnbaum emphasized that the fund requires only initial registration by Oct. 3. More complicated eligibility documentation can wait.

“If people are unsure, they should register so they are covered,” Birnbaum said.

She said it’s “impossible” to estimate the range of individual awards, given variables like the number of claims, varying disabilities, extent of lost wages and offsets for prior benefits.

The Oct. 3 deadline applies to people who contracted covered, noncancer illnesses prior to Oct. 3, 2011.

Workers sick with covered cancers have until Oct. 12, 2014, to register.

Fund registration is accessible at vcf.gov or by calling 855-885-1555.

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