The first “shift” that John Feal, a supervisor for a demolition contractor, worked at the smoldering labyrinth of fallen buildings at Ground Zero lasted 43 hours. Over the next few days — until Sept. 17, 2001 — the young, athletic worker from Long Island labored amid the molten metal and shattered glass and concrete remains of skyscrapers that had collapsed after terrorists rammed two airliners into the World Trade Center.

Feal’s work would end when an 8,000-pound steel beam landed on his left foot, cutting it in half. The injury, which required 30 surgeries over five years, made Feal one of the thousands of heroes of 9/11 who have been treated in a manner that is anything but heroic. Disgraceful is a more fitting word.

Like thousands of others who descended on lower Manhattan after the terrorist attack, Feal did not work for New York City as a cop or a firefighter, and didn’t have the health insurance, disability and pension safety nets those jobs provide. As a construction worker whose labor was subcontracted to three different companies, his claim for workers’ compensation was repeatedly stymied. “Nobody wanted to claim that I got hurt on their watch,” he says.

Unable to work, he lost his health insurance, sold off his cars and even his furniture to pay medical bills. Twice he went to court to save his house from foreclosure; his credit score plummeted. “The financial burden that was placed upon me was staggering,” Feal says. “I lost almost everything.”

His claim for Social Security disability benefits was at last approved in 2004 and Feal began a slow climb back. He started a foundation to help other 9/11 rescue and recovery workers who are sick and unable to work, yet trapped in a legal maze that often denies them even meager disability benefits — or finally grants benefits so long after they’ve stopped working that financial crises consume them.

The attack on lower Manhattan that killed 2,751 people, like the simultaneous assault on the Pentagon, was an attack on the entire nation. At the time, a shocked and sorrowful public recognized this. Even now, the United States — not New York City — wages two wars that began in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Yet for eight years, even as tens of thousands have come to its hospitals and clinics with illnesses related to their exposure to the toxic concoction of burning jet fuel, asbestos and other environmental hazards borne in the dust that settled over homes, storefronts and offices in lower Manhattan, New York has been left to cope mostly on its own. Limited federal funding has paid for health screening, and more than 10,500 people have received federally funded treatment for physical health problems, according to a report by a panel on World Trade Center health problems appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But that is a small part of the story. There are 71,000 who have come forward to have their health monitored. After reviewing more than 100 studies that have been completed on the health issues arising from the attack, the Bloomberg panel concluded that post-traumatic stress disorder is “highly prevalent” among rescue and recovery workers. So are asthma and other forms of serious respiratory disease. Those who had no protective gear — neighborhood residents; construction, telecommunications workers and others who labored at the site for weeks; commuters; volunteers — are at greater risk.

Then there is the unknown: Cancers, some of them rare, have begun to be diagnosed. The health panel cautions that “late-emerging effects are not expected to be clearly evident for at least a decade after exposure.”

For years, New York lawmakers have sought legislation to require the federal government to monitor and treat those who responded to the World Trade Center disaster, as well as residents who lived near the site. For the most part, lawmakers from outside of the region believe this isn’t their problem. Yet Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., one of the measure’s sponsors, notes that at least 10,000 people went to New York from around the country to help after the attacks. “These are your constituents,” she pleaded in a recent memo.

So the toll from 9/11 climbs. Its victims suffer from debilitating diseases, struggle against financial ruin, and confront early death. The most meaningful — and imperative — way to mark this anniversary is for Congress to finally pass the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

Anything less is political theater, and a tired act at that.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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