*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the bill failed to pass the full Legislature. It passed unanimously and awaits the governor's signature.
A measure is headed to Gov. Kathy Hochul's desk that would educate thousands of people about federal assistance related to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 they might be entitled to.
The bill, nicknamed the 9/11 Notice Act, would mandate employers notify people who worked near the World Trade Center or surrounding New York City Exposure Zone through the end of May 2002 they may be eligible to apply for compensation through the federal September Eleventh Victim Compensation fund and the World Trade Center health program.
It would apply to businesses employing 50 people or more, and would require the notification of about 360,000 people scattered across the country.
"There's a misperception that the only people who are entitled to benefits from the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and the World Trade Center Health Program are first responders, when in fact, the majority of the victims downtown on and after 9/11 were civilians," said Troy Rosasco, a toxic exposure attorney with Hansen & Rosasco LLP. "Simple people who worked down there, people who were residents — people who were students."
Anyone who worked, lived or attended school near Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks has elevated risk of developing dozens of related cancers and other illnesses, and the federal relief to help people exposed to the toxins does not only apply to first responders.
Fewer than 10% of eligible civilians are getting compensated for their Ground Zero exposure, compared to about 80% of first responders, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"So everybody from the cleaning person to the vice president of the bank is also entitled because all of them were exposed," Rosasco said.
The federal relief funds to assist victims with health care and other benefits to people diagnosed with a cancer or illness after they likely inhaled a series of toxins and carcinogens following the disaster. It applies to people who lived or worked in the Manhattan exposure zone south of Canal Street or on the route to remove debris. A representative can also apply for someone who died from their related illness.
The measure passed unanimously in the Senate and Assembly.
The bill was recently tweaked for the state Economic Development and Labor departments to work together to ensure businesses would successfully track down and notify all past and present employees.
"There are now 9/11 victims in every state of the union," Rosasco said. "So that will be its own challenge to reach out to them and try to make sure they know about their eligibility rules."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency incorrectly said the air was safe to breathe less than a week after the Twin Towers collapsed.
Gary D'Onofrio, 67, of Nutley, New Jersey, wasn't at work in the Financial District the day of the attacks, but worked with his company's cleanup crews and helped sort through papers, computers and debris for days afterward.
"I used to drive in and go to work every day on that PATH train, and we'd go right through the World trade Center," he recalled after the attacks. "They wouldn't stop. You know, the dust is flying around. There were days that you could smell the dust inside the train."
Years later, D'Onofrio was diagnosed with stage 3C colon cancer. He had a 27% of survival, but beat the odds.
He was not aware he was eligible for the federal relief for his 9/11-related illness until he heard a radio advertisement and his curiosity piqued. He called and applied for the relief just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck — or nearly a decade after his disease.
The legislation, he said, would help thousands of people like him learn about their medical risks and compensation. He urged any person who used to take the train or breathed the air in that part of Manhattan to take the proper life-saving precautions.
"Please, get checked," he said. "It's only just a phone call to find out if you're eligible. All they can do is say 'no.' So why not call?"