GREENVILLE — Three thousand people died following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington and the assault on the Capitol Building that was thwarted by heroic passengers on a jet flying over Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Many more developed respiratory illnesses and cancers from exposure to toxic substances at or near ground zero.
Michael Arp, of Greenville, is one of them.
Arp, 51, was working as a state Department of Environmental Conservation officer assisting with the DEC’s debris removal at ground zero and providing basic security which included escorting dignitaries to and from the site, two weeks after the attack, Arp said.
Pictures of ground zero don’t come close to conveying the sense of devastation, he said.
“TV cameras or video didn’t really show the intensity of it,” Arp said. “It was a cloud of dust and smoke the entire time you were there.”
In June 2015, Arp visited his doctor for his annual checkup. The doctor wanted to check Arp’s prostate-specific antigen levels and found they were elevated. Arp was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“I definitely felt like there was some underlying issue going on,” he said.
Arp then learned from a friend, a retired New York Fire Department firefighter, about the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund.
The fund was created to provide compensation for anyone who suffered physical harm or for the survivors of those killed as a result of the terrorist attack — including the debris removal efforts that took place in the attack’s immediate aftermath, according to the fund’s website.
In 2011, former President Barack Obama signed the James Zardoga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act into law. The legislation is named after the New York Police Department officer whose cause of death was related to toxic contaminants at ground zero after the attack, said attorney Michael Barasch of Barasch, McGarry, Salzman & Penson, a New York City personal injury law firm that specializes in 9/11-related cases
An autopsy revealed that Zardoga had ground glass in his lungs and asbestos and lead in his body.
“If any death can have meaning, his did,” Barasch said.
Since its inception, the fund has distributed $4 billion to 22,000 people. In 2015, the law was reauthorized and the fund was extended for five years, Barasch said. Those affected can submit claims until Dec. 18, 2020, according to the fund’s website.
“Nobody envisioned the rate people would be coming down with cancer,” Barasch said. “They all left with this ticking time bomb because they had been exposed to these harmful carcinogens.”
Barasch has begun an effort to get Congress to extend the fund for a longer period, but some elected officials consider it a “New York problem,” he said. Many of the people who came to New York to help with the cleanup after Sept. 11 are from across the country.
“So many people from all over came here to help and came back [to their home states],” Barasch said. “Congress has to do the right thing here — they have to reopen this thing because people are dying.”
Barasch decided to represent people suffering from 9/11-related illnesses after he attended the funerals of victims who died in the attack and heard the persistent coughs from firefighters, with persistent coughs.
“That’s what got me involved initially,” Barasch said. “If you’re a firefighter with asthma, you lose your career.”
Barasch’s office represents about one-third of the people who were at ground zero. Many of his clients have developed rare and aggressive cancers. Thirty of his male clients developed breast cancer.
“That’s one example of the rarity and aggressiveness of these cancers,” Barasch said.
The fund became essential to Arp because he used more than 500 hours of sick leave in two months when he was out of work undergoing surgery and recovering. He was able to get all his sick leave back.
Arp supports the effort to reinstate the fund beyond 2020.
“It’s got to be re-signed again. It shouldn’t have a date on it,” Arp said.
Arp’s prostate cancer is in remission, but he makes an annual trip to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City for a checkup to make sure it stays that way. He encourages anyone facing a situation similar to his to look into the fund.
“I definitely encourage them to sign up for the program and take advantage of the health care that is out there,” he said.
*Editor's note: This story corrects an earlier version that stated the the fund has distributed $4 billion to 2,500 people. The money has been distributed to 22,000 people.
To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.