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Victim Compensation Fund continues to offer relief to 9/11 survivors

Written by on September 7, 2021

On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people were killed in four separate, terrorist-led plane crashes.

Most died soon after the suicide attacks due to smoke inhalation or the impact of buildings collapsing in Manhattan. The recovery effort took nine months. Twenty years later, more people have died from toxic exposure than on that day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The toll that the World Trade Center attacks took on survivors is emotional, physical and financial, and in the last two decades, victims have been awarded more than $8 billion in the form of monetary payments for economic losses as well as health care treatment for those suffering from illnesses related to the attacks.

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Sullivan Papain Block McGrath Coffinas & Cannavot, a law firm that has represented New York City’s firefighters union for four decades, as well as more than 4,000 individuals with 9/11-related health problems, recieved 362 wrongful death and/or personal injury claims after the attacks, personal injury lawyer Nick Papain told Fox News.

“No department was more devastated than the fire department on 9/11,” Papain said. “The firefighters and other first responders have not only suffered physical illnesses but post-traumatic stress disorder because they were down there for days and weeks and months — initially in the rescue efforts and then in the recovery efforts. And a lot of them have suffered from survivor’s guilt, from having seen fellow firefighters in their own firehouses who perished on 9/11.”

394263 15: (PUERTO RICO OUT) Policemen and firemen run away from the huge dust cloud caused as the World Trade Center's Tower One collapses after terrorists crashed two hijacked planes into the twin towers, September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images)

394263 15: (PUERTO RICO OUT) Policemen and firemen run away from the huge dust cloud caused as the World Trade Center’s Tower One collapses after terrorists crashed two hijacked planes into the twin towers, September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images)

The Victim’s Compensation Fund (VCF), which provides benefits to 9/11 survivors facing health issues or economic losses as a result of the World Trade Center collapse, opened in 2001 after the attacks.

The first special master of the fund was Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer who handled settlement cases for many other victim compensation funds, including the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the One Fund for Boston Marathon bombing victims and the TARP Executive Compensation.

Over the 33-month period Feinberg worked to finalize details of the original VCF, he met with more than 1,500 family members personally. The average award for claimants at this time was $2 million. 

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Andrew Ansbro, who represents more than 20,000 active and retired firefighters as president of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), and Michael Schreiber, the sergeant-at-arms of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, are both recipients of VCF health care benefits for 9/11-related illnesses. The World Trade Center attacks were both fighterfighters’ first emergency response jobs with the FDNY 20 years ago.

Schreiber told Fox News he was injured during the attacks and underwent ACL reconstruction, which kept him out of work for eight months at the time. He has also experienced other 9/11-related health problems within the last five years, including acid reflux, sleep apnea and sinus pain.

Ansbro said his lung capacity declined from 92% to 72% in the year between 2000 and 2001. In the last decade, he has been diagnosed with athsma, COPD, reactive airway disease and “a bout of” skin cancer on his face that doctors were able to remove.

The rubble of the World Trade Center smoulders following a terrorist attack September 11, 2001 in New York. A hijacked plane crashed into and destroyed the landmark structure. (Photo by Porter Gifford/Corbis via Getty Images)

The rubble of the World Trade Center smoulders following a terrorist attack September 11, 2001 in New York. A hijacked plane crashed into and destroyed the landmark structure. (Photo by Porter Gifford/Corbis via Getty Images)

“I had a chest cold. It was actually in the middle of the summer,” Ansbro said, recalling the moment about 11 years ago when he realized he was eligible for VCF health care. “And when they looked at my pulminary function numbers, they were extremely low, and they suggested that I go to Mount Sinai and get a full work-up, where they gave me a whole battery of tests.”

The original VCF closed in 2004, but President Obama reopened it in 2011 to compensate individuals experiencing continued adverse health effects linked to the 9/11 attacks. 

The Obama administration named the reopened fund the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Fund after the late New York police officer James Zadroga. Zadroga was the first officer to die as a result of Ground Zero-related health problems at the age of 34. In the reauthorization, civilians were able to claim funds as well. 

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“People don’t realize that this 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund goes well beyond first responders,” Papain said. “When the Victim Compensation Fund first opened in 2001, it was designed to help the families of those who perished on 9/11 and those who had been seriously injured as a result of their work at Ground Zero. But in 2011, when it reopened, it expanded to the civilians who worked, lived or went to school there. It’s been a public education effort.”

This includes anyone present at the Pentagon crash site; the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, crash site; or in the New York City Exposure Zone between Sept. 11, 2001, to May 30, 2002. The exposure zone refers to “the area in Manhattan south of the line that runs along Canal Street from the Hudson River to the intersection of Canal Street and East Broadway, north on East Broadway to Clinton Street, and east on Clinton Street to the East River; and any area related to or along the routes of debris removal, such as barges and Fresh Kills landfill.” 

Pedestrians react to the World Trade Center collapse September 11, 2001. Two commercial airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center earlier.  REUTERS/Stringer - PBEAHUKXYAY

Pedestrians react to the World Trade Center collapse September 11, 2001. Two commercial airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center earlier.  REUTERS/Stringer – PBEAHUKXYAY

Both Ansbro and Schreiber commended the VCF for the way it handles benefits for first responders who were present during the attacks because all of their information is listed on a roster indicating those who are eligible. Other retired firefighters or civilians who were in the exposure zone that day and may be eligible for funding or health treatment may not know they qualify, they said.

“People in the general public who… don’t have documentation may have a harder time establishing they were there and then getting the health care,” Ansbro said, adding that establishing records for firefighters who were already retired on 9/11 but responded to the scene is “harder” than establishing records for first responders who retired after the attacks.

The Obama administration reauthorized the Zadroga Act in 2014, and the VCF was extended for another five years. Some of the stipulations were altered, as well, including capping non-economic loss as a result of cancer at $250,000 and non-economic loss not resulting from cancer at $90,000. 

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In 2019, former President Trump signed the Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act, which extended the VCF claim-submission deadline to Oct. 1, 2090, and allotted an additional $10.2 billion for compensation. At this time, payouts were significantly reduced due to the number of people now filing claims.

“They answered terror with the emotional strength of true warriors,” Trump said at the time. “Our nation owes you a profound debt that no nation can ever pay, but we will keep our promise to you.”

Survivors and family members now have virtually unlimited time to file VCF claims as a result of the former president’s deadline extension, but survivors must complete registration with the VFC two years after having their illnesses verified by the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP).

Awoman holds up a photograph during the ceremony commemorating the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center site in New York.  (AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith, File)

Awoman holds up a photograph during the ceremony commemorating the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center site in New York.  (AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith, File)

Ansbro called the 2019 extension “a weight off” victims’ shoulders but added that his only qualm with the VCF is first responders’ repeated efforts “go back to D.C. and fight the politicians for the recognition and the funding” for the program.

In August 2020, the New York Post reported that coronavirus was causing severe complications for 9/11 survivors due to the impact 9/11 had on their respiratory systems.

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The VCF updated its stipulations last year to include guidance for wrongful death claims for individuals who died of COVID. In order to be eligible for compensation, their website reads, physical harm as a result of the attacks or debris removal efforts has to either be an immediate cause of death, an underlying cause of death, or a significant condition contributing to death. 

In 2021, more than 5,000 claims have been submitted, and $779.6 million has been awarded.

Sept. 11, 2021, will mark 20 years since four hijacked planes killed nearly 3,000 people.

“This anniversary always triggers a lot of memories for our members,” said Schreiber of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. “We have 2,500 members who are still active that worked on that day that are going to be working this week, next week, and it brings back a lot. … We’ve lost over 200 members since that day. We continue to lose members.”

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Ansbro said the date of the attacks seems far away and close simultaneously. 

“I’m very happy to personally have made it this far,” he said. “But from where I sit now, we’re still losing a lot of members. … Anyone who lives through it knows that the next medical could be a bad one. That’s being played out by firemen too often, that they’re going in and getting bad news every time they go into a routine medical. Everyone walks around happy to be here but knowing that day may come.”

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