New York

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2007, 12:00am

For more than five years, many of the thousands of workers who put themselves in danger by working in and around the ruins of the World Trade Centre searching for survivors and clearing the rubble felt forgotten. They had breathed a noxious mixture of fumes and many of them were going to get sick or even die.

But officials at many levels had been deaf to the agony, until the Ground Zero workers got their symbol: Cesar Borja, a police officer who recently died from a lung disease.

New York's Daily News said he worked on the pile immediately after the September 11 attacks. As a result, President George W. Bush met Borja's family and pledged money to help those suffering because of their work at the site.

But the symbolism did not survive. Last week, The New York Times questioned the way Borja's work at Ground Zero had been depicted in the media, disclosing that he had not been sent to the scene until 31/2 months afterwards, when the noxious smoke had largely dissipated.

This triggered a New York Post editorial that argued the government needed to get medical evidence before approving 9/11-related health compensation.

On the streets, there was similar concern. 'I believe there are many people who deserve the compensation,' said Bonnie Cohen, a 28-year-old bookkeeper. 'But I always suspect people could abuse taxpayers' money.'

The issue sparked fears that the recognition campaign for the sacrifice made by 'first responders' had been damaged.

'It will be harder to get the compensation. Look how miserable we'd been before the Borja story,' said Marvin Bethea, who almost died at Ground Zero. The 47-year-old paramedic was buried when the first tower collapsed. He dug his way out only to be showered in dust again when helping an elderly woman as the second tower fell. He now suffers from asthma and depression, and has been admitted to hospital seven times for breathing problems. He takes 18 medications and is unable to work.

Although a hospital newsletter documented his story, a supervisor gave an affidavit, and he got a citation from the city council, getting worker's compensation was still a 21/2 year nightmare for Mr Bethea. He was questioned at length about his whereabouts and deeds in a series of hearings.

'It was the biggest insult to me. It's like calling me the 'N word',' said Mr Bethea, who is black. 'Many people would rather die than go through the torment.'

But so far, the questioning of the Borja story does not seem to have led to a reversal in the recent acceptance that help is needed. The federal government had pledged an additional US$25 million to help first responders and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also called for US$1 million to reopen the Victim Compensation Fund that was closed at the end of 2003.

'We finally got to the point where there is a lot of attention' on these health issues, said New York state assemblyman Michael Gianaris. 'I don't believe one case is going to move the legislation one way or the other because it is much bigger than one person.'

Mr Gianaris just introduced a bill calling for a memorial for people who died from illness triggered by work at Ground Zero. The media flip-flop, he said, would not disqualify Borja for the memorial. 'Certainly, he would be included.'