“Over 600 union retail workers worked at the department store across the street from the World Trade Center. Many of them are now facing health challenges related to their toxic exposure…They, and so many others who were present there during and after the 9/11 attacks, need to be notified of their rights.”

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Eric Adams cutting the ribbon at the reopening of Century 21 in lower Manhattan.

The story behind Century 21, the department store in Lower Manhattan, resembles the spirit of American endurance. In 2002, its return reflected the strength of America’s resolve to rise from the ashes of 9/11. Today, its revival symbolizes America’s determination to recover from the lingering economic effects of COVID.

Century 21’s story of resiliency is also a reminder of the long-term impacts 9/11 has had on so many people. 

At least 400,000 people who lived, worked or attended school below Canal Street between Sept. 12, 2001, and May 30, 2002, were breathing in toxic dust without their knowledge. 9/11 toxins have been linked to 69 different cancers and other illnesses, as the harmful exposure has killed more people (5,578) than the actual attacks (2,996).

Over 600 union retail workers worked at the Century 21 department store across the street from the World Trade Center. Many of them are now facing health challenges related to their toxic exposure. Others have ultimately passed away.

They, and so many others who were present there during and after the 9/11 attacks, need to be notified of their rights. The consequences of medical debt can be catastrophic. The federal government recognized the gravity of the situation and set up a medical and compensation fund for those affected. 

 But most people who were there don’t know that they are eligible for free healthcare and compensation. This is especially true for non-responders, such as retail workers, doormen, teachers, doctors, students, professors, and employees of organizations in downtown Manhattan and northern parts of Brooklyn.

While government officials were quick to encourage people to return to work, shop and live after the attacks, there is still a massive need to notify individuals of their rights under the World Trade Center Health Program and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund eligibility. The urgency of this issue cannot be overstated. Families who have lost loved ones or who are struggling with medical bills need to know that they have options.

New York’s proposed “9/11 Notice Act” (A9715/S9551) is a crucial piece of legislation that was introduced by Yonkers Assemblyman Nader Sayegh and Lower Manhattan State Senator Brian Kavanaugh. It would require organizations with 50 or more employees to notify individuals who were present below Canal Street any time during the eight months following 9/11 of their medical rights under the World Trade Center Health Program, and eligibility for compensation from the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

It is essential to find forgotten victims of 9/11. Those who have gotten sick, and families who have lost loved ones, should not have to shoulder the financial burden alone. The federal government has set up a compensation fund for a reason, and it is imperative that eligible individuals are made aware of it.

Data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control reflects that so far, just 37,384 non-responders have registered for free healthcare with the federal government, comprising less than 10 percent of the civilians who were exposed.

Meanwhile, recall the effort and energy from the highest levels of government and business that was poured into reopening our financial markets and the iconic Century 21 store after the Twin Towers fell. The retail store’s reopening was more than symbolic. It was a huge celebration that made international news with great fanfare by government officials.

We can and must do more to locate, educate and inform forgotten victims, especially all the many retail, office and hospitality workers and other non-responders who were encouraged to return to the area because the “air was safe.” It was not safe. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers with eroding health have learned that the hard way.

The 9/11 Notice Act is a crucial new piece of legislation that can make a real difference in the lives of those affected by the toxic dust, to avoid being crushed under the weight of medical debt. Families of deceased victims could be reimbursed for years of medical costs and lost wages under the federal act. Let us support the effort to find forgotten victims and provide them with a lifeline.

Michael Barasch is a managing partner at Barasch & McGarry and a legal advocate for the 9/11 community.