9/11′s forgotten first responders

By JENNIFER MURPHY | September 8, 2021

When the second tower collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, paramedic Gary Smiley got knocked down by the blast, blown under an ambulance, and buried by an avalanche of dust.

“I remember thinking, ‘I just got myself killed,’ ” he said.

Twenty years later, Smiley and many other city EMS workers with 9/11-related illnesses are still buried under the rubble of bureaucracy, denied World Trade Center disability pensions by the New York City Employees Retirement System, NYCERS.

A former paramedic with the New York Fire Department, Smiley is among the thousands of rescue workers who developed 9/11-related illnesses stemming from World Trade Center contaminants created by the pulverized towers. Years after the attacks, he developed chronic health problems. In addition to PTSD, Smiley was diagnosed with sinusitis. Asthma. Reactive airways dysfunction syndrome. Gastroesophageal reflux disease. A lesion in his ear that caused problems with balance.

In 2014, Smiley applied for a World Trade Center disability reclassification pension with NYCERS. While firefighters are governed by the FDNY Pension Fund, EMS workers go through a different system, NYCERS, which is not connected to the Fire Department.

By law, city workers can reclassify their pension for illnesses stemming from their work at Ground Zero. The 9/11 presumption bill establishes a legal presumption that city workers who responded to the 9/11 attacks and cleanup efforts and who later developed diseases linked to their work at the World Trade Center were entitled to accidental disability retirement pensions worth 75% of their salaries.

Yet NYCERS denied Smiley’s application for a World Trade Center disability pension. After more than five years of litigation and appeals, NYCERS granted him a three-quarters disability pension — for PTSD only. NYCERS’ medical board — a three-physician panel that included no doctors who specialized in 9/11-related diseases — rejected his more serious World Trade Center illnesses.

Smiley’s experience is far from singular.

During her second appeal of a World Trade Center disability denial, NYCERS concluded that city EMT Ivonne Sanchez was not disabled and could return to work as an FDNY EMT, even though she was already retired on a three-quarters pension and had been diagnosed with 9/11-related breast cancer, asthma and GERD. After multiple rejections and appeals, NYCERS approved her — for asthma only. Put bluntly, if she died of cancer, her children would not receive accidental death benefits.

For years, city EMS workers have been denied World Trade Center disability pensions at a higher rate than firefighters. NYCERS rejected around half of World Trade Center disability claims filed by EMTs and paramedics in 2017. The FDNY Pension Fund, by contrast, approved 75% of disability claims filed by firefighters.

There was only one 9/11. Why were EMS workers who responded to the same disaster receiving unequal treatment when it came to World Trade Center accidental disability pensions they’re entitled to by law?

This question kept Smiley up at night.

In 2016, he became the volunteer World Trade Center Liaison for the FDNY Local 2507 paramedics, EMTs and Inspectors Union. He began advocating for 9/11 EMTs and paramedics at the national level. In 2017, the state Senate opened an investigation into the pension disparity. Legislation soon passed that allowed NYCERS to expand the number of physicians on its board from 14 to 24 and broaden the range of specialties to include areas of medicine relevant to World Trade Center first responders, like oncology.

EMS workers waited for NYCERS to institute these changes. But for three years nothing happened. In 2020, NYCERS finally added three specialists to its board.

“We drop out of the light because people think 9/11 is only on 9/11,” Smiley said. “But 9/11 does not end on 9/11 for us. 9/11 is every day of our lives.”

Smiley said the first responders he advocates for are so discouraged by the city pension system’s high rejection rate of EMS workers that they hesitate to approach NYCERS, even though they desperately need help. An EMT with 9/11-related pancreatic cancer told Smiley, “I’m afraid I’ll die before NYCERS approves my pension application.”

“Every time you put in an appeal,” Smiley said, “It’s three doctors in a room at NYCERS. You sit there, and they embarrass and humiliate you.”

A NYCERS doctor asked one wheelchair-bound 9/11 paramedic with cancer, “Is that wheelchair yours?” When a city EMT undergoing chemotherapy for stage three 9/11 cancer sat before the NYCERS medical board, one of the doctors read a job description of EMS work. Then he looked at her and said, “So you can’t push, pull and lift?”

The price Smiley and other emergency responders paid for being on-duty on Sept. 11 was tragically high. Now, on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, many EMS workers are looking at New York City and wanting answers.

Why have we failed first-responders so profoundly? This question should keep us all up at night.