Indiana first responders among the thousands getting sick after recovery efforts at ground zero

INDIANAPOLIS – Seventeen years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, a new effort is taking shape to pressure Congress to renew the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund before money runs out and the fund expires in 2020.

The fund was created to provide financial assistance to those who have become sick from toxic dust at ground zero.

Indianapolis firefighter Greg Hess was one of more than 60 Indiana first responders who arrived at ground zero in the hours following the attacks to assist in recovery operations.

“The thing that I remember the most was the faces of the guys from New York,” he said in an interview Tuesday at the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Indianapolis.

Hess was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, which he said doctors directly linked to his eight days at ground zero. Hess said among the Indiana first responders in New York during those initial days, 26 have gotten sick and a handful have died.

“I’d do it all over again,” he said. “I’m one of those crazy guys that run into a burning building.”

Resources have been made available to first responders but concern is the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund will run dry before Congress acts to renew the program.

“What we’re seeing is a high risk of cancers and we still need more years to see the effects,” said Dr. Khalil Diab, a pulmonologist at IU Health. “I think we need to continue to monitor this closely over the years and continue to help these people deal with the side effects about what happened to them. We should not forget these first responders.”

New York City firefighters, alongside the help of comedian Jon Stewart, are again pressuring Congress and demanding lawmakers renew the program long before it expires.

“While significant funding is still available, it is critical that full funding is available for all who need it in the years to come,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement Monday. “I call on Congress to renew and expand the program.”

The initial funding did face opposition on Capitol Hill.

First responders nationwide hope this time it will be different.

“There are guys that were on the team in their 20s and 30s,” Hess said. “They need to be taken care of.”