‘It was worse being there’: First responder reflects on his time at ground zero

Retired Scarsdale firefighter John G. Daly, Jr.

When the World Trade Center collapsed after terrorists flew two hijacked airplanes into the twin towers 17 years ago on Sept. 11, first responders from New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester counties and neighboring jurisdictions rushed into action.

Of the 2,977 victims killed on 9/11 in New York, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, 412 were emergency workers in New York City, including 343 firefighters, 37 police officers of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department, 23 New York Police Department officers, eight emergency medical technicians and paramedics from private emergency medical services and a patrolman from the New York Fire Patrol.

Many of the survivors have dealt for the last 17 years with the aftereffects of exposure to toxins at the site of the disaster, and they keep fighting.

Retired firefighter John G. Daly, Jr., 78, a former Marine and 36-year veteran of the Scarsdale Fire Department, joined the 9/11 responders on Day Five after the tragedy, and again a month later.

Daly was stationed with others at the twin towers “pile” initially, but was subsequently sent to help unload essential tools and equipment from trucks.

Even a month after the attacks, Daly recalls, smoke was pouring in plumes from the site when he joined dozens of emergency workers from Westchester in lower Manhattan.

“One of the guys had a connection with Mount Vernon Fire [Department],” Daly said. “We met with them and had two busloads to transport us down.”

Millions of Americans and people all over the world had watched the news in disbelief as the two tallest buildings in New York, each more than 1,300 feet high, were reduced to rubble.

“As bad as it looked on television, it was worse being there,” Daly said. “The guys passed around jars of Vicks to try and kill the smell.”

The weather was warm in the days following the attack, Daly said, so some responders took off their turnout gear and put it aside.

But passers-by stole the gear, he said.

The responders from Westchester wore standard-issue paper masks, Daly said, but the masks didn’t do much to protect them.

Daly was diagnosed with prostate cancer and lymph node cancer on his neck and under his arm starting in 2008, though he said he doesn’t know whether the cancer is related to working on the 9/11 site.

However, Daly said he knows others who were directly affected by exposure to the toxic dust and debris. And, for a year after the tragedy, Daly accompanied other firefighters from Scarsdale in fire trucks sent to take part in funerals for fallen firefighters.

“The tragedy of Sept. 11 is ongoing and there are members within the World Trade Center Health Program who estimate that within the next two years, the number of survivors who have perished since 9/11 will surpass the number of those who perished on 9/11,” said Scarsdale fire Capt. Christopher Mytych.

However, according to some reports, the $7.3 billion in public funds dedicated to sufferers may run out before everyone eligible has been helped.

The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund was created to provide compensation for any individual, or a personal representative of a deceased individual, who suffered physical harm or was killed.

The original fund operated from 2001 until 2004. In 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which was authorized to operate for five years. Obama reauthorized the same bill, but it also included reauthorization of the original victim compensation fund. The new law extended the fund for five more years, allowing individuals to submit their claims until Dec. 18, 2020.

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomohas urged Congress to ensure full funding for the compensation fund.

According to officials in Cuomo’s office, nearly $4.3 billion has been awarded to claimants eligible for compensation.

“Some are suggesting that we dilute compensation to the next rounds of applicants due to diminution of funding,” Cuomo said. “All are equally heroes to the nation, and all should be equally and fully funded.”

This year on Sept. 11 Cuomo signed legislation to extend to 2022 the period for workers and volunteers to file a Notice of Participation for lost wages and medical benefits as a result of their involvement in the recovery and clean-up operations.

The extension will allow more people additional time to receive workers’ compensation, disability and accidental death benefits.

The legislation takes effect immediately and protects claims filed on or before Sept. 11, 2022, if the volunteer or workers’ impairment occurred between Sept. 11, 2015 and Sept. 11, 2017.

Cuomo also encouraged 9/11 responders to use the World Trade Center Health Program for both treatment and monitoring of their health.

The WTC health program offers treatment for those affected by the 2001 terror attacks. As a separate program from the Victim Compensation Fund, it doesn’t have an application deadline and is authorized through 2090.

— with reporting by Valerie Abrahams

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