By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
NEW YORK (PAI) - Last year, John Sferazo, an Ironworker from Local 361 in Brooklyn, who helped clean up debris from "The Pile" - the wrecked World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks that killed more than 600 unionists and 3,000 people overall - went to the wake of a co-worker on the debris.
Sferazo got to the wake a little late one day, when only "Mike's family and close friends were there," he says. Mike died of respiratory ailments contracted by breathing in toxic gases and debris from the cleanup of the ruins - ailments like those that afflict Sferazo and thousands of other workers and New York area residents after the 9/11 attacks.
And Sferazo saw a heart-rending scene which brought home the lasting impact of the attacks, not just on the workers who died at 9/11, but on those who are sickening, dying and will continue to die from the toxic combinations unleashed when the Twin Towers collapsed: Ammonia, asbestos, particulates, other cancer-causing substances.
Because there, in the funeral home, "I saw Mike's two young children - they were no more than 8 years old - trying to climb in the coffin to say goodbye to Daddy," Sferazo said, with tears in his eyes and a choked-up already raspy voice.
The rasp in Sferazo's voice is from the ailments he contracted as one of the thousands of workers from around the country who spent months picking through and sorting the debris. They loaded it onto trucks and ferries and carted it off to the Staten Island landfill, without any protection for their bodies and especially their lungs. Now they're paying the price.
"I'm typical of the others who stayed 29-32 days at the site. My medical conditions are reactive airway disease, restrictive airway disease, sinusitis, continual lung infections, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, sleep apnea" and gastric diseases, the now-disabled Sferazo told a House Oversight and Government Operations subcommittee.
Thousands of workers are sickening and dying from such ailments, witnesses added. The group, including city medical and civic officials, testified the Bush government harmed them twice in the aftermath of 9/11: Once by saying the air was safe to breathe at "Ground Zero" without masks and then by shortchanging programs to would deal with their medical problems.
And it's not a small group of people that the unionists, including Sferazo and 9/11 paramedic Marvin Bethea, went to bat for on Feb. 28. A definitive city study, released late last year, said 681,000 people could be affected. That includes workers on "The Pile," lower Manhattan residents, school children and workers in nearby buildings where toxic debris and gases wafted into rooms and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
The federal government's response to their plight? A Bush budget proposal for $25 million this year for follow-up study of the victims - just enough to keep going two of the three treatment centers for them.
That money would go to the city Fire Department, which lost 343 union Fire Fighters, and their priest, in the attacks, and to Mt. Sinai Hospital, which treats other first responders - but not those who dug into "The Pile" later, nor the kids nor the community residents. They're treated at Bellevue Hospital, which gets none of the funds.
And Bush officials told lawmakers they are concentrating on documenting data of long-range health effects of 9/11, so future claims are legitimate and victims who become ill in coming years will really have been sickened by the toxic gases and particles.
That's not good enough, the unionists and other witnesses told the mostly sympathetic subcommittee. The city report estimates that between $250 million and $393 million will be needed to treat all the victims of subsequent 9/11 illnesses. The victims' compensation fund, open only to families who lost kin in the terrorist attacks, and which is now closed, should be reopened and extended to the other victims, they added.
"Individuals who are now suffering from 9/11 health effects were responding to an act of war against this nation. The government is responsible for assisting them, but New York City cannot bear the responsibility on its own, especially for those who aided New York in its time of need but now live in other states," declared Linda Gibbs, the city's deputy mayor for health and co-chair of its World Trade Center health panel, which produced the report. The city wants a permanent dedicated fund to help pay the health care costs of the victims.
Besides the money, the continuing victims of 9/11 want recognition of their ills, especially by a government that told them it was safe to work on The Pile without breathing apparatus or even masks. That's why Sferazo, Bethea and the others hold the Bush government responsible for their ills.
"If I am to be the voice of the responder," the now-disabled Sferazo rasped, "then I am outraged by the lack of responsibility and loss of obligation this administration has towards us. We are clearly being shown that we are expendable. George Bush came to the Trade Center and told us 'We will never forget.'…Well, we feel he forgot."