9/11 announcement a relief to Bay Area 1st responders

September 11, 2012 12:43:48 AM PDT
Eleven years after the fact, the federal government is acknowledging that cancer may be part of the price paid by first responders to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. For years, the feds have refused to cover cancer treatments for those who worked at Ground Zero. Now that's changing.

In the years prior to Sept. 11, firefighters from San Francisco's Fire Station One would go back to New York to march with their New York counterparts in the Saint Patrick's Day parade. So when the planes flew into the Twin Towers 11 years ago Tuesday, those San Francisco firefighters felt a particular connection and a need to show up and help.

On Sept. 11, 2001, San Francisco firefighter John Sikora was on duty at San Francisco Fire Station One.

"Some guys started making phone calls and asking each other what shouod we do, we got to do something," Sikora said.

As soon as commercial planes started flying again, Sikora and 10 more from Station One were on their way to New York.

"We felt the need to help our friends and we became friends with a lot of the guys out there," Battalion Chief Vic Wyrsch said.

Normally firefighters from California would be covered for cancer treatments under the state's workman's compensation, but because the San Francisco firefighters took vacation time and went to New York on their own there were questions about whether they would qualify for the state program. The new federal decision removes that uncertainty.

"Puts us maybe at a little more at ease because there are a tremendous amount of guys coming back, coming out of there with cancer, so I guess there is a little bit of relief," Wyrsch said.

But at the time, Sikora says, the risk of what they were undertaking was not a consideration.

"People weren't thinking like that, you just felt like you had to do something and that's what we do, that's what we know how to do, what we could do," he said.

In the weeks after Sep.t 11, firefighters from Station One were joined by dozens of others from the Bay Area. Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman says a lot of them came back sick.

"In fact, we were one of the first teams to realize there was something serious wrong with the people who had responded," he said.

Schapelhouman says he would still go again, but maybe do it a little differently.

"Yeah, we definitely got ourselves into something that we weren't necessarily fully cognizant of what it was," he said.

Over the years, research, some of it done at UC Davis, showed that toxins in the air around Ground Zero were brutal, in sharp contrast to the Environmental Protection Agency's assurances a week after the attack that the air was safe to breathe. An inspector general's report found the EPA's statements were misleading and that the agency did not have enough information to make those assurances about the air quality. Researchers at UC Davis say the site was a health threat for months following the attacks.


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