9/11 rescue workers face court battle to pay for healthcare
Clean-up crews given compensation ultimatum as only 10,000 of 70,000 will be covered by $657m payout
Ed Pilkington in New York
guardian.co.uk, Friday 12 March 2010 19.12 GMT
Glen Klein, a police officer and part of the clean-up effort at Ground Zero.
Glen Klein's desire to earn a little extra money on the night shift after a divorce was what saved his life. He opted to work in his New York police Swat team from 4pm to midnight on 11 September 2001; had he done the morning shift he would probably have been among his 14 colleagues who died trying to rescue people in the Twin Towers.
More than eight years later, he carries with him the trauma of that day and of the weeks and months that followed. He takes pills for post-traumatic stress disorder, and has had a range of health ailments, ranging from stomach cramps to scarred lung tissue, which he links to the more than 800 hours he spent on the rubble pile at Ground Zero.
Now Klein is among 10,000 Ground Zero rescue workers who have been offered compensation as part of the first major federal health settlement to arise from 9/11. As part of a deal agreed on Thursday night, and put to judicial scrutiny in a series of Manhattan court hearings that began today, he would be entitled to part of a $657m (£430m) federal pot.
Along with his thousands of co-plaintiffs, Klein has 90 days to agree to the deal. Unless 95% of them do so, dropping any threat of legal action, the deal will be off.
But Klein is in no mood to be browbeaten into accepting. "Right now I've got a lot of questions about this settlement and I'm signing nothing until they're answered," he said.
The cause of his scepticism lies in his experiences after the 9/11 attacks. He worked 16-hour days, digging in the rubble, looking for body parts and driven on by thoughts of his 14 dead colleagues.
"We knew how important it was to find bones or bits of flesh so families could lay to rest their loved ones. Whenever we found a bone it made you feel good, as you were able to give somebody closure."
In those early days, Klein and his fellow emergency workers were lauded as national heroes, but he says the atmosphere soon changed. "A year later people didn't want to know anymore. I imagine it was a bit like how the Vietnam vets felt when they came back from the war."
He is convinced that he and his colleagues were lied to by official bodies who assured them that the air quality at Ground Zero was safe. When he took rest periods in an adjacent school, he remembers seeing clouds of dust in the air and over the food the emergency workers ate. He blames that for the pre-cancerous colon polyps he has had removed, and the excruciating stomach pain that has put him in hospital five times. He has also been diagnosed with nodules on one lung and scar tissue on the other.
The settlement, thrashed out between lawyers acting for those sickened by Ground Zero dust on the one hand and New York city and private construction companies on the other, would force the plaintiffs to drop lawsuits that had been due to come to trial in May. In return, they would each receive compensation varying from a few thousand dollars to $1m or more in the most extreme cases.
Several key players have praised the settlement as the best available, including the lead lawyer for the injured workers, Marc Bern, and New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who called it "fair and reasonable".
But groups campaigning on behalf of sick and injured rescue and recovery workers point out that 70,000 people were involved in the Ground Zero clear up, spending hours engulfed in a toxic soup of pollutants, yet only 10,000 would be covered by the settlement.
Claire Calladine, who runs 9/11 Health Now, said the average compensation of $65,700 was "ludicrous when you consider that many of the plaintiffs' health is in ruins, with a large percentage completely disabled, and with cancers and other serious diseases also surging."
Klein also has doubts. He volunteers for the Fealgood Foundation, a group that works with sick 9/11 workers founded by John Feal, a demolition supervisor who was himself injured at ground zero. Through the group Klein befriended many workers who had contracted cancer, some of whom have died.
"Even if you get the top whack of $1m, how far does that go? By the time you've paid for chemotherapy and tests and hospital care, it could be used up in six months – and when you die what's left for your family? Nothing."
Klein and the Fealgood Foundation would prefer to see the passage of a bill currently before Congress. The James Zadroga bill, named after a police officer who died in 2006, would guarantee full health care for life to Ground Zero workers.
"I know a lot of my colleagues will be thinking 'Wow, here's a chance to get three or four thousand dollars'," Klein said. "But they need to think long term: will there still be healthcare available to them in 10 or 15 years time?"