Rep. Dan Donovan puts faces to names of those suffering after 9/11
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- September 11, 2001, was 21-year-old firefighter Robert Serra's first day on the job.
Having graduated from the Fire Academy the day before, the Staten Island native saw the terrorist attack from the Verrazano Bridge and rushed home to grab his bunker gear.
He donated a pint of his blood after hearing a dire need for it, but was weak and spent his time in lower Manhattan stretching hose lines, searching for survivors and marking body parts. His nose was bleeding profusely.
Fourteen years later, the 35-year-old married father of three has had dozens of polyps removed from his nose and sinuses, suffers from thyroid nodules, acid reflux, IBS, GERD and PTSD.
He sat inside his Great Kills home on Tuesday morning, talking to Rep. Daniel Donovan (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn) as they were surrounded by his family, friends and colleagues from the Fire Department.
Donovan has been pushing for Congress to renew the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act permanently, part of which expired this month. While there are enough funds in it to sustain it through 2016, another part will expire next year and the fight to renew it will continue.
"These extensions are ridiculous because there's no security what happens next time it runs out," Donovan said.
Serra is one of thousands of people who benefit from the World Trade Center Health Program under the Zadroga Act.
Donovan thanked Serra and other first responders gathered in his house and on his front lawn.
"You guys did not hesitate ... for what you personally did," the congressman said. "It's about time your government stood up for you."
Noting the tremendous response on 9/11 — even from people like Serra, who had not yet gotten the hands-on training in the fire house that his colleagues had, yet rushed to help anyway — Donovan said, "And our country hasn't responded properly to you."
As Serra recalled that harrowing first day on the job, Donovan noted that Serra's father-in-law, Vincent M. Litto, died on 9/11 while working at Cantor Fitzgerald in One World Trade Center.
But many are still dying because of ailments from exposure to hazardous particles in the air, and like Serra, from exposure to dust brought back to the Fire Department.
"These illnesses are permanent; they're not going anywhere, they're only going to get worse," Serra said.
One of the people sitting in Serra's living room was Howard Scott, a firefighter who was at Ground Zero before both buildings came down and managed to survive. But he has been fighting colorectal cancer since 2010.
He had to pay out-of-pocket for some cancer treatments until his cancer was included in the list of ailments that are covered under the WTC Health Program.
He has now been cancer-free for five years, but lives with side effects of the disease and has to get regular check-ups.
Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) is a neighbor of the Serras and spoke about the promise many made to "never forget" yet not all have put their money where their mouths are, unlike Donovan who is a co-sponsor of the Zadroga renewal bill.
With the WTC Health Program, Serra said he sees the same doctor every time, and "she knows what the rest of us are dealing with. ... it's comforting to know I'm going to see the same doctor."
Serra, father to Lynda, 6; Francesca, 4, and Vincent, 2, is unable to work and has been retired for three years. He stood next to his wife, Kristen, on their front lawn as he thanked Donovan for having the "intestinal fortitude" to go to bat for first responders.
"Thank you for putting your voices to this," Donovan said.