The 9/11 Decade: A Peekskill 9/11 Responder Looks Back

PEEKSKILL, N.Y. -- It was almost 10 years ago that Charlie Wassil, then a Peekskill police detective, went down to lower Manhattan with fellow emergency responders from across the tri-state area to the help at the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“People didn’t hesitate,” Wassil said. “They shouldn’t have to hesitate when their country is under attack.”

According to Wassil, if there were ever to be another attack, people might not be as willing to offer help based on recent changes made to the 2010 James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act . The act is named for NYPD Officer James Zadroga, who died of a respiratory illness after the attacks, and was passed by Congress last year and put aside $2.7 billion for those injured or sickened by the 9/11 disaster and to the family of victims. But the federal government just announced that cancer would not be covered under the bill.

“The next time something happens, guys are going to think twice,” Wassil said. “They’ll say, ‘Why should I go there if the United States is going to turn their back on me if I get sick.” Wassil, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, joined the New York Police Department in 1986 and served until 1990 in the 44th Precinct in the Bronx.

In 1990, he joined the Peekskill police and retired as a detective in 2008. Just four months later, Wassil was diagnosed with neurosarcoidosis, which causes severely inflamed cells in his spine -- leaving him paralyzed.

His last chance rested with the drug infliximab, an anti-inflammatory used to treat severe rheumatoid arthritis. However, he said that the drug that he needed was not FDA-approved and the Workers' Compensation Board would not pay for it. After pleading with officials at the hospital, Wassil said he was approved purchase of the drug at half the normal price, or $7,000 a treatment.

Only fundraisers from the community helped Wassil afford the pricey treatments. Still using a wheelchair to get around the assisted living facility he is being treated in, Wassil said that life is still a struggle. “I’m not getting any better, but I’m not getting any worse. I’m an old tough Marine, still chippin’ away.”

The long ordeal is perhaps why Wassil is so sympathetic to the first responders who say they’ve developed cancer after 9/11. The changes comes after the release of a federal study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOS) that say they found no correlation between the environment at Ground Zero after the attacks and the development of cancer. However, many 9/11 responders have reported developing cancer after their time at the site.

Wassil said he has no doubt that’s where they got it. “If you’re looking at guys who are 30 or 40 years old who spent so many hours at Ground Zero and are coming down with cancer, it doesn’t take a scientist to see that something was wrong down there,” Wassil said. “Federal studies say a lot of things. They tell you a vitamin is good for you and they two years later they’ll say you shouldn’t have taken it.”

Last week the authors of the Zadroga Bill, Congressmen Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler, and Peter King, released a statement in protest of the cancer treatment cuts and 9/11 Health Program Administrator Dr. John Howard. “We are confident that studies on the effects of the toxins at Ground Zero -- research that, under the Zadroga Act, can be funded and fully supported for the first time -- will ultimately provide the scientific evidence that Dr. Howard needs to make this determination … The collapse of the Trade Center towers released a cloud of poisons, including carcinogens, throughout lower Manhattan and we fully expect that cancers will be covered under our legislation."

Wassil said he didn’t understand why the federal government was willing to help other nations but hesitated to spend enough money to help its own citizens. “They send $3.5 billion to Pakistan to help the war in Afghanistan and you had [Osama] Bin Laden right down the street from the intelligence service of Pakistan,” Wassil said.

Wassil added that there may still be people in need of treatment who do not even know it yet. “What about the children who got exposed down there who were, say, 2-years-old at the time? When they’re 15 and they get cancer, what will they say then?”

Congress has called for ongoing studies into the health ramifications of the 9/11 attacks, and it is possible that cancer will be covered in the Zadroga Bill at a later time.

How do you feel about Congress' changes to the Zadroga Bill?

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