New York Expands Benefits for Ground Zero Rescue Workers

Gov. George Pataki signed legislation Monday to greatly expand benefits for workers who have died or become sick from toiling in the smoke and dust that hung over the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Among other things, the families of rescue workers who die of their illnesses years after Sept. 11 would receive the full benefits available to those killed in the line of duty.

Rescue workers claim they are suffering from a variety of respiratory ailments and fear they could develop cancer down the line from asbestos and other toxic substances.

"As it is clear that many champions of 9/11 have developed debilitating illnesses over time resulting from their selfless acts, these New Yorkers need to know that New York state will not abandon them," Pataki said in a statement.

The governor's office had no immediate estimates for how many people the three new laws would cover or how much money the benefits would involve, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg complained that the legislation would cost the city $500 million over 10 years.

"It's just another example of the state of New York doing something that they want to do, but making the city pay," Bloomberg said. "There's no free lunch, and Albany doesn't seem to understand that."

The mayor said he did not object to the bill's purpose, "but I want them to fund it if that's what they want to do."

Health officials have warned that it may take 20 years before doctors know the full health effects of Sept. 11 on emergency personnel and civilians who were either engulfed in the airborne remains of the two 110-story buildings in the days immediately after the attack, or spent months afterward removing bodies and debris from the site.

A class-action lawsuit representing 8,000 workers and civilians blames Sept. 11 for sinusitis, cancer and other ailments developed after the attacks.

One of the laws signed Monday allows recovery workers who became ill after a two-year deadline to reapply for workers' compensation benefits.

"The brave men and women suffering from hidden health issues stemming from Sept. 11 should not be denied benefits because of a statutory time limit they had no hope of meeting," Pataki said.

The second law allows relatives of police officers and firefighters to receive the same benefits offered to families of those killed in the line of duty.

The improved benefits would probably apply to the family of 34-year-old retired police Detective James Zadroga. Zadroga died in January from respiratory disease. A New Jersey medical examiner ruled that his illness was "directly related" to Sept. 11. Union officials said that was the first rescue-worker death attributed to toiling at ground zero.

The third law would allow ground zero workers who became ill after they retire to have their retirement status reclassified as accidental disability, providing more generous benefits.