Sunday, February 15, 2009

Obama to reopen 9/11 victims compensation fund

Pool photo by Chad Rachman/New York Post

Barack Obama spoke with 9/11 family members and first responders last Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center site. The president met with family members last week and spoke about closing Guantanamo Bay and answered a question about people suffering from health problems caused by 9/11.

Obama says he’ll ‘never forget’ those sick from 9/11

By Julie Shapiro

President Barack Obama last week renewed his pledge to help 9/11 first responders who are sick, a campaign promise his staff first made to Downtown Express in October.

Obama’s words came Friday during a meeting with about 40 family members of those killed on 9/11 and in the U.S.S. Cole attack. Obama spoke, took questions and greeted each of the attendees individually.

When Obama reached Jim Riches, a deputy chief in the F.D.N.Y. whose firefighter son was killed on 9/11, Riches handed Obama his son’s mass card.

“I said, ‘Don’t forget them,’” Riches recalled afterward. “I said, ‘Remember the firemen who died and the sick firemen.’ He said, ‘I’ll never forget them.’”

Obama’s support could be helpful as the U.S. House of Representatives weighs a new 9/11 health bill recently introduced by New York’s Congressional delegation, which would reopen the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund and provide free healthcare to first responders, residents, students and office workers who can demonstrate health problems caused by the toxic fallout of the attack. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also supports the measure.

The Senate does not have a similar bill pending, but Rachel McEneny Spencer, spokesperson for newly appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, said in an e-mail that Gillibrand “is planning to take up [former Sen. Hillary Clinton’s] work on the 9/11 healthbill. But we need to get to know the parties and speak with our colleagues before we introduce a bill.”

Obama’s New York campaign office told Downtown Express last year that he supported the House bill. Clinton’s office said then that she was working to build Senate consensus on a similar measure that could pass.

Last Friday, Obama was only supposed to spend half an hour with the victims’ family members, but he spoke with them in the Executive Office Building, next to the White House, for more than an hour, Riches said.

“He was very compassionate,” Riches said. “He hugged the widows and mothers who were crying…. He said as a parent he doesn’t know how he would be able to handle the loss of a child.”

The topic of the meeting was Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, where former President George W. Bush sent terror suspects after 9/11. Some family members of terror victims initially objected to the closure, including Riches, who spent two weeks visiting Guantanamo in January.

“I was a little upset at first,” said Riches, who did not want the trials he saw to be interrupted by the closure. “It’s eight years, and we’ve had no justice.”

But after hearing Obama’s stern promises, Riches said, “I can wait a little longer. Let’s do it the right way.”

Another local activist who attended Obama’s meeting was Sally Regenhard, who founded the Skyscraper Safety Campaign after her son, a probationary firefighter, was killed on 9/11.

Regenhard brought a picture of her son with her to show Obama, and when Obama greeted her, he thanked her and offered his condolences.

“It was really just a moment in time, but it was an honor,” Regenhard said, choking up. “He treated us with such dignity and respect.”

Regenhard often finds doors slammed in her face at the local and state level when she tries to advocate for building safety and other 9/11-related causes, so she was particularly gratified to get a kind reception on the national level. Obama pledged to keep an open line of communication with the family members and to convene future meetings between them and his staff.

“It only took eight years, but it’s better late than never,” Regenhard said. “Good things do come to those who wait.”

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