Professor Yvonne Phang wasn’t at work on Sept. 11, 2001. But in the months afterward, as she taught at Borough of Manhattan Community College in Lower Manhattan, the remnants of the attack were all around her.
“There were times when I was teaching where every student and myself — we had our mouths covered,” the accounting instructor said. “When the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, we smelled it in the classroom on the sixth floor.”
Particles from the nearby World Trade Center site were everywhere, as she saw in the “white haze” illuminated by the flood lights set up around Ground Zero, she said. Her nose and eyes burned. But she got no formal medical treatment.
It wasn’t until 2018, after she had a double mastectomy for breast cancer, that Phang even considered her proximity to the attack site may have affected her health.
A friend heard an ad on the radio about the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, and suggested she look into it. But she hesitated, even then.
“Like everybody else, I thought it was just for firemen and policemen, first responders,” she said of the Justice Department program that provides financial compensation for those killed or harmed by the terrorist attacks or their toxic aftermath.
Now, as a new registration deadline for the fund looms at the end of this month — on July 29 — she worries people like her will miss an opportunity for care and compensation.
“It’s still very much a mystery to people,” she said of the fund and the tandem World Trade Center Health Program, a different plan administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide medical care for responders and survivors. “I was just talking to someone I work with, and I never thought to ask him, you know: ‘Were you here on 9/11?’”
He was — working at Century 21, the recently-shuttered department store across from the Twin Towers.
“Now I’m giving him literature,” she said. “I said, ‘Why haven’t you filed?’ He said, ‘File what?’”
Reserve Your Rights
Thanks to the 2019 VCF Permanent Authorization Act, anyone affected should be able to file a claim with the fund — for the next 70 years, or through Oct. 1, 2090.
But there’s an important first step: You must register with the fund, which can be done through an online form that asks for only a name, date of birth and Social Security number.
Why register? It reserves your right to file a claim in the future. And the July 29 deadline to register is coming up fast people who fall into one of these two groups:
- You were certified by the WTC Health Program for a 9/11-related condition before July 29, 2019.
- You are seeking to register on behalf of someone who you believe died of a 9/11-related condition before July 29, 2019.
That deadline marks the end of a two-year registration extension created by the fund’s special master, Rupa Bhattacharyya, when Congress passed the VCF Permanent Authorization Act to help those who had missed earlier deadlines or not heard about the fund’s resources.
Attorney Michael Barasch said the two-year window is a “wonderful thing” for people who may benefit from the fund, particularly family members of those who died many years ago of causes that weren’t officially linked to the Sept. 11 attacks at the time.
“Every day, I get calls from people who would have missed the deadline had it not been extended,” he said.
His firm, Barasch & McGarry, has represented thousands of Sept. 11 survivors and victims, including James Zadroga, for whom the landmark 9/11 bill is named.
The issue is personal for Barasch.
His firm was two blocks from the World Trade Center and of the 16 staff members who worked there in the months after the attacks, five were diagnosed with cancer. That includes Barasch, a prostate cancer survivor. Two paralegals, both in their late 40s, died variously of kidney and breast cancer.
“It really was tragic,” he said. “What’s even more tragic is if the families don’t realize that they are entitled to financial security. I don’t want to see people miss the deadline.”
‘OK to Take a Payout’
Nearly 20 years after the attacks, a big challenge for the fund’s administrators is making sure far-flung potential beneficiaries get the information they need before it’s too late. And, often, those people live out of state.
“The group we’re most concerned about are not still in the New York City area, or who were never in the New York City area” — including volunteers who flocked to Ground Zero from across the country, Bhattacharyya told THE CITY.
Lila Nordstrom tries to get the word out to an especially dispersed group: those who were students in Lower Manhattan in 2001.
She was a student at Stuyvesant High School, and advocated for students to be included in the Sept. 11 health act after struggling with her own breathing problems.
Finding people to tell them about the fund is one challenge, Nordstrom said — convincing them to use its resources is another.
“There’s a lot of denialism in the survivor community,” she said, partly because they were “lied to and then ignored for years.”
Someone suffering from asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease or rhinosinusitis — all among the WTC Health Fund-approved illnesses — may not be convinced they deserve the resources available.
“It’s OK to take a payout if you qualify for a payout,” Nordstrom said. “This is not money that you’re taking out of the pocket of a first-responder cancer victim. This is money that was set aside for us, too.”
It’s taken a long time for the message to get through to civilian survivors. Only in the past three years have their claims filed with the VCF begun to outnumber those from first responders.
‘Every Year It Gets Harder’
If you fall into the groups limited by the July 29 deadline, you should register with the VCF as soon as possible — even if you’re in good health.
That’s because part of the process to file a claim will involve proving you were in Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of Sept. 11, through witness statements from friends or colleagues. And that gets trickier with each passing year.
“Companies that were in business and employing all these people 20 years ago, they go out of business. Or the witnesses disappear. So, if you can’t prove you were there, and every year it gets harder to do, well then you’re not going to get anything, even if you do register on time,” Barasch said.
Getting that proof together can be easier with an attorney helping, and the majority of people who register with the VCF do so with legal help, a fund official said. But having a lawyer is not a requirement for registration.
Phang worked with Barasch & McGarry to do all of her paperwork. And she has helped people in the BMCC community looking for assistance with their claims. Just last week, a colleague of Phang’s died of throat cancer, she said.
“It’s tough and it’s going to get even tougher,” she said. “Because this is only the 20th year.”