Age: 14, Grade: 9
School Name: Packer Collegiate Institute, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Todd Johnson
18 Years After 9/11, Where Are We?
How the struggle to replenish the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund highlights the insincerity imbedded within many of the promises to “never forget.”
July 9th, 2019
WASHINGTON, June 11th, 2019 – Jon Stewart sits in The Capitol Building. In front of him are 14 congressmen and women, their presence overwhelmed by the twenty-seven empty chairs where the rest of the House Judiciary Committee typically reside.
Stewart leans into the microphone, eyes watery, red pen grasped tightly between shaking fingers. Though it’s only five minutes into his speech, it’s nine years into this fight.
“And it would be one thing if their callous indifference and rank hypocrisy were benign, but it’s not.”
The cameras don’t bother him. Not once does his gaze drift toward the lenses pointed in his face. He glances at the fourteen members of the Subcommittee, but his glare, infused with rage, is at the twenty-seven empty seats.
“Your indifference costs these men and women their most valuable commodity,” he says with increasing fervor. “Time.”
Stewart’s voice breaks beneath the weight of his words. He purses his lips tightly and leans back. Shaking his head, balled fist over his mouth, face red, it’s clear he’s barely holding himself together.
“It’s the one thing they’re running out of.”
Nobody in the room is surprised by his bluntness because behind Stewart sit those who worked at Ground Zero following the terrorist attacks on The World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Behind Stewart sit those who have been forced to drag themselves, cancer and all, to Capitol Hill, so they can beg to receive proper funding for healthcare.
As I sat in bed, watching Jon Stewart speak from the bright screen of my phone, I couldn’t help but share in his anger, despite having little to no information about the bill he was fighting to get passed. Entranced by the unapologetic intensity of Stewart’s words, each sentence seeming to explode from his mouth, I barely noticed the tears rolling down my cheek, onto my pillow. It was the day after the House Judiciary Committee hearing had occurred, yet by the time I finished listening to the opening speech, I was too shocked to look up the results. Here were men and women, sick beyond my own understanding of sickness, and here I was, discovering their suffering for the first time.
Having been born years after, I had only heard stories of 9/11 from my parents, who had been in New York during the attacks. To me, the World Trade Center was a historical landmark, but still only history. My friends and classmates thought similarly, often describing their own parents’ stories with morbid fascination, detailing the fear felt by their moms and dads at the idea of potentially having been one of many victims. My peers and I are all born-and-raised New Yorkers, so one might think we of all people would be more invested in 9/11 and its aftermath.
This is not the case.
I believed that there was no lasting damage outside of the 2,977 lives that had been lost on the day itself. Not once had I seen an Instagram post or hashtag detailing the horrific footprint of sickness left behind by the falling of the Twin Towers. I hadn’t even seen any news stories detailing the fund that was meant to save the lives of brave men and women. I hadn’t even heard that said fund was slowly being depleted and was soon to expire with no reinstatement confirmed.
The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (or “VCF”) was initially established in 2001 with the sole purpose of providing victims’ families with money. The fund closed in 2004, as it was supposed to; however, in 2010, lawmakers pushed to reauthorize the bill. This time, to help give healthcare to first responders, volunteers, and other civilians who were around the rubble at Ground Zero (or “the pile”). For months, the pile was burning, smoking, and releasing toxins into the air, but it was deemed safe to be around. Many of those with increased exposure to it started to experience unique illnesses in the years following. The VCF began to take claims, in which victims could describe the affliction caused by their inhalation of the dangerous fumes. Claims of cancer and respiratory problems came flooding in. The fund was most recently renewed in 2015 but is set to expire in 2020. The Never Forget the Heroes Bill is meant to refund the VCF until the year 2090, essentially a permanent refunding.
Wanting a perspective outside of my typical community, I sat down with a fireman from Engine 205, located on 74 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights. Stan Khavasov, 31, began his career with FDNY as an EMT before deciding to become a fireman three months prior to our meeting. He had a rather shy disposition that matched his smaller build, speaking slowly and carefully, with an accent from spending the first third of his life in Russia. He was not the stereotype of a New York fireman I had somewhat expected, yet the sense of family that firefighters are known for was readily apparent.
“Hearing that–it’s devastating,” he said when asked how he felt about the lack of proper healthcare funding for first responders. “As firefighters, we consider each other brothers.” It was clear that Khavasov had been immediately embraced into the family and that connectedness is a top priority for the FDNY. I learned that it’s through the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, which Khavasov referred to as the union, that every station is given information about whatever protests and meetings they can attend to support the bill. “This is why we’re fighting.” Khavasov said, referring again to the inherent bond that all first responders share. “This is why we help the union to fight for those benefits that those firefighters from 9/11 need and deserve.”
“Do you feel like this bill is getting enough coverage?” I asked, despite knowing the answer.
“I feel like it’s not. It’s not enough until the bill is actually processed and is… secured for all the 9/11 survivors. Once it’s secured, then we don’t really need the coverage.” Khavasov stressed the importance of “security” within the VCF.
It occured to me, in that moment, that security was the thing most lacking for victims since that infamous day in 2001. Jon Stewart’s unfiltered rage suddenly made sense. Though the fund has never received forceful objection, confirmation has been difficult to achieve. When it was reopened to pay for first responder healthcare, claims of 9/11-related illnesses were doubted. After all, the EPA had claimed the air was safe for volunteers to continue working at Ground Zero after the attacks. In 2015, reauthorization of the VCF was a slow process. This is where Jon Stewart began to be more vocal in his involvement, making appearances on his former late night show (now hosted by Trevor Noah), and routinely denouncing politicians for not prioritizing refunding. Firemen like Ray Pfiefer and Luis Alverez, who actually attended the most recent hearing before passing away soon after, began advocating for a replenishing of the VCF as well. However, the five-year guarantee was not enough, Khavasov enformed me. “As time goes on, people that were struck with the 9/11 symptoms, cancers–abnormal cancers…” Khavasov’s natural smile flattened out into a solemn line before returning to the point of his statement. “Every year more and more come out, but a lot more die out, so you have less and less people…it is [up to us] to help out–to basically publicize it. To keep it secure.”
While talking about education and the concept of “never forgetting,” a phrase often used in reference to the first responders on 9/11, we began discussing the men lost from Ladder 118: Lt. Joseph Agnello, Firefighter Vernon Cherry, Firefighter Scott Davidson, Firefighter Leon Smith Jr., Firefighter Peter Vega, Lt. Robert Wallace, Lt. Robert Regan, and Captain Martin Egan. “We have to know all of their names, we have to know certain things about them,” he said, proceeding to tell me about the engine’s policy of taking visitors to the shrine dedicated to the eight men lost. “They’ll always be a part of this house.” Before I left, Khavasov took me to the memorial. Within the small space where two fire trucks are crammed against one another, where uniforms line the walls, where there’s virtually no space to walk from one corner to the other, the memorial is given plenty of room. Photos of each man surround a black plaque which reads, “This memorial is dedicated to the brave men from Middagh Street who made the supreme sacrifice at WTC.”
Despite the embarrassment at mine and my peers’ ignorance, I realized that forgetting was not an option for the FDNY. They not only constantly pay tribute to the 343 firefighters who died, but they are active in the fight to provide compensation for any and all victims from 9/11. In typical firefighter fashion, they stand up for their community and work to preserve the health and happiness of their fellow New Yorkers, exemplifying selflessness and integrity.
Jon Stewart directed his anger toward American politicians.
“There is not an empty chair on that stage that didn’t tweet out, ‘never forget the heroes of 9/11’” Stewart said during the hearing.
Stewart, and the many first responders sitting behind him, had good reason to be angry. The process of providing funding to people who are more than entitled to free healthcare has been grueling and long, but the recent bill passed through the Subcommittee unanimously and is most likely going to pass through the Senate.
Stewart finished his thought: “Well here they are.”
Though his words were effective, the problem still stands.
“And where are they?”
Where were the politicians, that hearing in June? Those congressmen and women’s empty chairs sent a clear message: you aren’t important to us. We, the youth of America, as the future of this country, have a responsibility to use our voice. Movements can begin and spread with the click of a button. Focus can be brought to an issue with a simple repost. Any form of communication–a conversation at the dinner table or a chat among friends–can shine a light onto an otherwise shadowed topic. What the VCF needed, and still needs until it is confirmed for refunding, is coverage. It boils down to the promise made so frequently: we can’t forget. We didn’t follow the aftermath of 9/11 because it’s “history,” it’s before our time, but in not thinking about the past, we’ve left behind the ones who insured that we have a future. In ignoring 9/11, we’ve been allowing for a blatant disregard of some of the most selfless people in our country. This is not a call to action. This is a call to attention. Because Stewart was right: by wasting our platform, we’ve wasted the most valuable commodity of those first responders.