It was June 11 and former late-night comedy show host Jon Stewart, a long-time advocate for first responders, appeared before a congressional hearing to urge the House Judiciary Committee to extend the depleted 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF).
Beside him sat a dying man, retired New York police detective Luis Alvarez, frail and ravaged from the effects of the cancer he developed after working at Ground Zero.
He had delayed a round of chemotherapy to attend the hearing to support fellow first responders, many of whom had filled up the room. They included other police officers, firefighters, paramedics, contractors and cleaning staff, who were among up to 80,000 people who rushed to the aid of victims after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York.
As they worked on rescue and recovery, they were unknowingly being exposed to a toxic mix of asbestos, lead, jet fuel, splinters of metal and powdered concrete.
To date, 10,000 people are reported to have been diagnosed with cancer linked to 9/11. The VCF, set up to provide financial assistance for first responders who developed illnesses, was due to end next year and has been so low on funds it was unable to guarantee payments to nearly 19,000 claimants.
Addressing the committee, Stewart said it was shameful that many Congress members hadn’t even turned up to the hearing while so many sick and dying people were present: “These men and women should be up on that stage and Congress should be down here answering their questions. Why is this so hard and why is it taking so long? These men and women and their response… is what brought our country back. It’s what gave a reeling nation a solid foundation to stand back up on… and you are ignoring them. They responded in five seconds, they did their jobs, with courage, grace, tenacity and humility. Eighteen years later, do yours!”
The next day, the committee voted unanimously to pass a bill extending the fund until 2090, ensuring decades of ongoing support for emergency responders and their families.
Three weeks later, Mr Alvarez died, aged 53, survived by his wife, three children, three siblings and his parents. His final brave act had been to see through the campaign to get the VCF extended.
The bill confirming the fund is now called the Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorisation of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act. James Zadroga was an NYPD police officer who died of respiratory disease in 2006, aged 34, and Ray Pfeifer was a firefighter who died from cancer in 2017, aged 59.
The scale of future health implications for the 9/11 first responders is still not fully known, but, according to reports, many have already been affected by decreased cognitive function, increased risk of strokes and a variety of cancers, and the statistics suggest that many more people will be killed by toxic exposure than by the original act of terrorism.
Sources: The Washington Post, BBC, UK Conversation