Deadline arrives for 9/11 victim fund

By Cara Matthews The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — John Leonard, a former fire lieutenant at 60 Engine Company in the Bronx, considers himself lucky he doesn’t suffer from cancer after working at the World Trade Center site on more than 50 occasions after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

But the Nanuet, N.Y., resident hasn’t escaped illness. He has chronic and acute bronchitis, reactive airway dysfunction syndrome, small airway disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease, rhinitis, sinusitis, severe nosebleeds and some hearing loss. Doctors wouldn’t operate on the polyps in his sinuses because they feared the bleeding would get worse, the 56-year-old married father of three said.

“Every morning I wake up and I’m severely congested,” said Leonard, who has never smoked. “I can’t breathe, I can’t talk, but I’ve gotten used to it by now.”

Leonard, who had to leave his job before reaching his goal of 35 years with the New York Fire Department, has registered with the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The fund will give out $2.78 billion to victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks for physical injuries, including death, and as economic compensation.

“I want my family protected if something happens,” he said. “It’s not for me personally.”

Thursday is the registration deadline for many who became ill as a result of being at or in the vicinity of the crash sites at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. It’s the last day that residents, students, volunteers, and rescue, recovery and cleanup workers who knew about their illness by Oct. 3, 2011, can sign up for the fund online. No documentation is required for initial registration. Participants waive their right to pursue litigation.

The Victim Compensation Fund is not affected by the federal government shutdown.

“The biggest issue with registration is getting people to be aware that they need to register,” said Ben Chevat, executive director of 9/11 Health Watch.

Some people mistakenly think if they’re registered with the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides medical monitoring and treatment, they don’t have to register separately with the Victim Compensation Fund, he said.

People with one of the dozens of cancers added to the list of World Trade Center-related health conditions on Oct. 12, 2012, have until Oct. 12, 2014. Anyone who becomes ill after Oct. 12, 2012, has to register within two years. The federal government last month added prostate cancers to the list of covered conditions.

Everyone has to file all the required forms by Oct. 3, 2016 – five years from when the fund was reopened. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 restarted the fund and created the World Trade Center Health Program. Zadroga, a New York City detective who spent hundreds of hours at ground zero, was 34 when he died in 2006 of lung disease. He lived in White Plains.

Money in the original compensation fund went to families of those who died in the attacks or suffered physical injury.

As of September 15, the fund had received 25,548 completed registrations, made compensation decisions on 78 cases and paid out $13.7 million. Since then, it has received more than 6,000 completed registrations, for a total of nearly 32,000, said Allison Price, a fund spokeswoman. The fund has nearly doubled the number of phone lines for its help line and has added staff because of high call volume, she said.

Robert Reeg of Stony Point suffers from chronic pain and asthma because of the attacks. He has signed up for the fund, and has encouraged others to do so. “You owe it to your family to try to cover yourself if you get sick,” he said. “I can’t think of a good reason why you wouldn’t.”

As Reeg, now 61, ran away from the collapsing south tower on 9/11, a piece of steel slammed into his back, crushing his ribs and causing other damage. He spent a month in the hospital. He had two nerve-block procedures last year, but they didn’t really help. As for the asthma, it’s not bad all the time. “I have pulverized concrete and glass in my lungs, so I have trouble with that,” he said.

Edward Kennedy of Mahopac, a former New York City firefighter, said he developed sarcoidosis after working at ground zero and has registered with the fund. Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease that often starts in the lungs.

“I’m doing OK. I’m hanging in there,” Kennedy, 59, said recently when reached by phone in Florida, where he was vacationing.

Kennedy, who worked with Reeg at 44 Engine in the Bronx, jumped under a car when the south tower collapsed. He spent about 10 days working on the pile and was in good health for several years before being diagnosed with sarcoidosis and asthma. He has since had surgery on his lungs and sinuses.

“I was lucky to survive that day, and I just take it one day at a time,” said Kennedy.

Worby Groner Edelman LLP in White Plains represents more than 10,000 people who worked on the “pile” at ground zero, as well as residents, shopkeepers and others in the area, including survivors of people who died, said William H. Groner, managing partner.

Groner said he’s concerned there won’t be enough money for everyone. The fund is only giving out about 25 percent of the $2.78 billion in its first five years, meaning a portion of a person’s award will go out now and the rest later. That’s because the fund closes in 2016, and nobody knows how many will apply, he said.

Thousands of New York State ALF-CIO members were at ground zero throughout the rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts, said Mario Cilento, union president. The AFL-CIO is trying to get the word out about the deadline. “We’re asking them to do for themselves what they did for strangers 12 years ago,” Cilento said.

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