The politicians who wrangled a last-minute compromise bill giving 9/11 survivors and responders with five more years of health care and billions of dollars in compensation gathered at the World Trade Center site Thursday to declare a patriotic victory, though others disagree over whether the bill goes far enough.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer joined other New York politicians and some ground zero workers beneath the rising construction at the site to celebrate the $4.2 billion legislation, which they said amounted to a declaration that the U.S. would not abandon those who defended its people in a time of war.
"When you risk your life for this country in a time of war, America is there for you. Yesterday we affirmed that tradition. The dream of America is alive and well," Schumer said.
But lawyer Noah Kushlefsky, whose firm has represented hundreds of 9/11 victims seeking payment, says the $2.7 billion limit on the victims' compensation fund will probably shortchange victims and their families.
"Whatever the measure of reasonable compensation is, they likely will not be given that," Kushlefsky said. The person responsible for administering the fund is required to make the money last for five years and assume there will be no more funds after that, he said.
Some other Sept. 11 responders were "ecstatic," said their lawyer, Andrew Carboy.
"This is the recognition, compensation and health care they so richly deserved," he said.
The bill was years in the making but all but dead just days ago, when Republican senators blocked it from coming to a vote. But the measure cleared a key hurdle when Schumer and Gillibrand, both Democrats, reached a compromise with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, reducing the bill's scope and cost.
Bill Ferraro was among the hard-hat-wearing men cheering the legislation at Thursday's news conference.
"This is closure for me," said the 62-year-old ironworker, who worked at ground zero on 9/11 and for the three weeks that followed, and says he now has a hard time breathing.
Ferraro said that when it seemed the bill wasn't going to pass, he felt he was being abandoned after doing his patriotic duty, just as he felt when he was called a baby killer upon returning from the Vietnam War. But now, he says, some of his worries about receiving treatment in the years to come have faded.
"It's something," he said of the reduced money, more than $3 billion less than the $7.4 billion initially approved by the House of Representatives. "You know what? At least they didn't turn their backs on us. ... It restores your faith in America."
That initial bill would have paid for 10 years of monitoring the health of rescue and cleanup workers and treating illnesses related to ground zero. By the time it passed the Senate on Wednesday, the legislation provided $1.5 billion to keep the programs going for five years.
That's enough time to offer stability to the health programs serving survivors and responders _ and to help them improve their services, said Dr. Philip Landrigan, who oversees the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program at Mount Sinai Hospital.
"We'll be able to recruit and retain top-level staff," he said. "It is less than was originally proposed, but at the same time it's very generous and we're very, very content," he said.
Researchers have found that people exposed to the thick clouds of pulverized building materials at ground zero have high rates of asthma and sinus problems. Many firefighters also suffered reductions in lung power.
Occupational cancer usually doesn't appear for at least five to 10 years following exposure, Landrigan said. But doctors still don't know whether there is a connection between the toxic trade center dust and cancer _ thus far, the death rate among those involved in the 9/11 cleanup has been similar to that of the general public.
Decisions on administering and allocating the compensation fund, intended to cover wage and other economic losses of sickened workers, will be made by a special master, to be appointed by President Barack Obama. Compensation will be limited to those who were at ground zero or who were exposed to the debris as it was carted away to be disposed.
For the first time, those who have suffered psychological aftereffects from the attacks but no physical symptoms will be eligible for compensation.
That's a good thing, said Lorenzo Maldonado, a ground-zero worker who remains out of work on disability after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The more people who are brought under the umbrella of care, the better," he said.
Associated Press writers Andrew Miga, Donna Cassata and Laurie Kellman in Washington and Larry Neumeister and Beth Fouhy in New York contributed to this report.