More than nine years ago, the nation watched in fear as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks unfolded with devastating pyrotechnics in New York City and Washington, D.C. Police, firefighters and other first responders countered that fearsome show of dark power with bravery and grit, helping save countless lives and inspire a generation as they made the ultimate sacrifice.
Then, there was the "pile," the smoking remains at Ground Zero that called a second wave to duty: the construction workers who dug around the clock to recover remains, cleanse a neighborhood and pave the way for a new World Trade Center. They worked double shifts without weekends, breathing in debris-laden air that the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration said was safe.
Then came the illnesses, unfolding at various speeds in the ensuing years, from asthma to scarred lungs to cancer. More than 900 first responders and construction workers have died. Among the more than 10,000 survivors, some need a constant flow of oxygen to survive. Others are barely ill. No one knows what the coming years will bring.
All those who worked at Ground Zero rendered a crucial service in our darkest hour. They deserve the steadfast care of a grateful nation.
So we are glad to see some relief, in the form of a settlement worth at least $625 million to be paid by New York City.
Some 10,043 plaintiffs will each receive a cash payout, ranging from $3,250 for anyone not yet sick to $1.8 million for the most seriously ill.
In addition, settlements in related suits, involving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, contractors, developers and barge companies, will provide workers and rescuers with tens of millions more.
The financial assistance is welcome. But it is far from enough, especially for anyone who is yet to develop 9/11-associated ailments. First reponders and construction workers -- who often don't have the pension and lifetime health care entitlements of police or firefighters -- need assurances that their health care needs will be met for the duration. Yet the settlement only includes a health-insurance policy for certain disorders, with a benefit cap of $100,000.
There is an obvious fix: the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which Congress has failed to pass for years. It would guarantee lifetime medical care to those who worked and lived near Ground Zero. It also would re-open applications to the Victims Compensation Fund, which was closed to new claims in 2003.
The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in September but has not come up for vote in the Senate. The New Jersey and New York delegation -- U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg, Robert Menendez, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand -- need to turn up the heat on their colleagues and push the law through. For too many citizens who served on the pile, the wounds from Sept. 11, 2001, have only just begun to appear.