Yesterday’s ceremonies remembering 9/11 show the mental and emotional wounds of that day’s attacks haven’t healed and probably never will. In addition to those painful memories, the effects of that awful day, when nearly 3,000 people died, also reverberate in tangible ways.
The Associated Press reported this week on a memorial to a whole other category of 9/11 victims — first responders, aid workers and others who’ve since died from causes that can be attributed, at least in part, to exposure to toxins at ground zero or the crash sites of hijacked airliners at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The number of those victims, pressed into service to search for victims and remove debris, continues to grow.
Six granite slabs with steel salvaged from the World Trade Center were placed in their memory at the 9/11 memorial plaza in lower Manhattan earlier this year. “Unlike the plaza’s massive waterfall pools memorializing people killed on 9/11 — those whose names are read at anniversary ceremonies — the boulders are not inscribed with the names of those they honor,” AP’s Jennifer Peltz reported. “There is no finite list of them, at least not yet.”
Such an accounting would be a daunting, never-ending task: More than 51,000 people have applied for payments from a fund created to compensate 9/11 victims and Ground Zero workers. Cancers and other diseases have killed many of the latter, and continue to do so. Their names should be committed to our collective memory.
Their service was quite visible in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Their work was recorded and photographed as the world watched firefighters, police and rescue crews pick through the dusty rubble of the Trade Center towers, where more than 2,700 people were killed when two jetliners filled with passengers smashed into the sides of the skyscrapers, leading to their collapse. Those efforts continued for months, long after the world’s attention drifted from Manhattan and the Pentagon and the crash site in Pennsylvania, to Afghanistan and the new locus of America’s war on terrorism.
As elusive as the search and rescue operation was, followed by the attempt to recover and identify remains of those killed, the first responders and aid workers were just as determined. Many worked through grief over the loss of more than 400 emergency workers in the attacks, 343 of whom were firefighters. They were exposed for the duration to God-only-knows what substances and chemicals. Yet they were not deterred.
Nor have they backed down in recent years, when they’ve had to fight to ensure continuation of the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund. The most recent lobbying came early this year, when the $7.6 billion account was shrinking and benefits payments were cut up to 70%. It prompted an intense lobbying effort that included comedian Jon Stewart’s appearance in a House committee hearing, where he implored lawmakers to preserve the fund: “Hundreds died in an instant. Thousands more poured in to continue to fight for their brothers and sisters. They did their jobs with courage, grace, tenacity, humility. Eighteen years later, do yours.”
Stewart appeared on Capitol Hill along with New York police Detective Luis Alvarez, whose body at the time was racked by a cancer he attributed to three months spent working at the crash site. A few days after making his case for the fund, Alvarez, 53, went into a hospice facility, according to the AP. He died shortly after that. The following month, citing a “sacred obligation” to the emergency workers, President Donald Trump signed the bill ensuring the future of the victims’ fund.
Covering their medical care in the face of illness, and providing for families who survive them, is one thing. Remembering their sacrifice in the aftermath of one of America’s darkest days is another.
It will be no easy feat to catalogue and memorialize the name of every firefighter, cop, paramedic, relief worker, laborer and other person called into Ground Zero and the other 9/11 sites, who stayed for months in the aftermath and ultimately paid for their efforts with their health and, in too many cases, lives. But it is an important tribute. It’s the least this country can do.