In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks, Steve Aseltine and his colleagues at Colorado Task Force 1 spent a week digging through rubble at Ground Zero, a mission that shifted from rescuing survivors to recovering the bodies of those killed in the attacks.
Sixty-four members of the task force, headquartered at West Metro Fire Rescue in Lakewood, responded after the attacks. In the air they breathed above Ground Zero were carcinogens, asbestos and more — what one doctor called “a witch’s brew” of damaging chemicals.
“We did lose one of the firefighters that we all responded with,” said Aseltine, a division chief for West Metro Fire Rescue and a leader with Colorado Task Force 1. That firefighter, Aaron Lybarger, died last summer from cancer related to his efforts at Ground Zero, Aseltine said.
For people like Lybarger and his former Colorado Task Force 1 colleagues, Congress expanded the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, reimbursing them for health problems associated with their work after terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and other sites. At the end of 2018, 163 Coloradans were registered for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Eighty of those had filed claims and 35 had been awarded payments by the end of 2018.
In early 2019, the fund’s operators determined they did not have enough money to pay claims through 2020, as previously expected, and would begin cutting payouts. That led to impassioned calls this spring for a permanent reauthorization to avoid similar cuts in the future.
“You never want to see someone go broke from being sick, especially when there’s a direct causal link between the service they provided to the country at a time of need,” Aseltine said. “Now, they’re sick years later and we’re not able to provide them the medical treatments that they need to buy them time.”
This month, after long delays that frustrated first responders, Congress acted. The House voted 402-12 on July 12 to permanently reauthorize the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, and the Senate followed suit Tuesday on a 97-2 vote.
“After everything the first responders of 9/11 did for us, our nation cannot and will not turn its back on them,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, a Yuma Republican and a leading co-sponsor of the bill. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Denver, also co-sponsored the legislation and voted for it this week.
Among the Colorado delegation, only Rep. Ken Buck, a fiscally conservative Windsor Republican, voted against the reauthorization. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, was absent during the House vote due to a family obligation, but was a co-sponsor and supporter of the bill.
“I support looking after our selfless first responders and their families through the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, but I could not support the House bill in its current form due to its length of reauthorization, its limitless funding commitment, and complete lack of fiscal offset,” Buck said in a statement Monday.
The bill is expected to cost more than $10 billion over the next decade, and billions more after that, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. Some fiscal conservatives in the Senate objected to the open-ended nature of the bill and slowed its passage as a result.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Buck called the bill a “wrong way to do the right thing.” He favored a five-year or 10-year reauthorization and said permanent reauthorization is an abdication of Congress’ job to oversee and responsibly spend tax dollars.
So far Aseltine hasn’t needed the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund – “knock on wood,” he says. But, as he witnessed with colleagues, there’s no telling how long his luck will last. After President Donald Trump signs the reauthorization bill, the 9/11 fund will be there, should he need it.
“There’s definitely the potential of that,” he said. “I’ve seen how some of those illnesses have (been) dormant for a while and then popped up.”