NYC: firefighters sue over WTC illness

From Newsday, April 26:

Nine New York City firefighters sued the city and its fire pension fund yesterday saying they were denied disability pensions even after the department told them their breathing disorders sustained at Ground Zero had left them unfit to serve.

“I was down there that day,” said firefighter Robert Ryan, 47, of Levittown, referring to Sept. 11, 2001. After 22 years of working as a firefighter in Harlem, Ryan said he was recently diagnosed with asthma and limited to light duty. Instead, he decided to retire two weeks ago at a regular pension rate representing one-half of his yearly pay. Disability pensions pay at a rate representing three-quarters of pay.

“I was taken out of a job that I loved,” he said. “They told me I can’t do this anymore. If I can’t go back to the firehouse, then I deserve the [disability] pension.”

The Fire Department of New York declined to comment. Georgia Pestani, chief of the New York City Law Department’s Labor and Employment Law Division, said the office had not seen the legal papers and could not comment.

The nine firefighters filed separate lawsuits in federal court in Central Islip seeking unspecified damages. Each claims he developed breathing problems after digging through the smoking wreckage of the World Trade Center, said their attorney, Eric Sanders, of New Hyde Park.

Not only did private doctors link the firefighters’ ailments to the rescue and recovery work at Ground Zero, the department’s own physicians did as well, Sanders said.

But when each of the nine went before the department’s Fire Pension Fund Board, each was told he did not qualify for the higher disability pension amounting to three-quarters of their yearly pay, Sanders said.

After 20 years of service, firefighters are eligible to receive pensions amounting to one-half their yearly pay. In order to receive the higher three-quarters rate, they must qualify for a disability pension through the pension board.

Most of the nine who filed legal papers yesterday are no longer allowed to respond to fires and must work desk jobs because of their health problems, Sanders said.

Ryan, who said he used to be a tri-athlete but now takes six medications a day, was awarded one-half his salary in pension.

“I wanted to work as long as I possibly could,” he said. “All of us gave 150 percent on Sept. 11. They need to do the right thing by us.”

See our last post on 9-11’s long aftermath in New York City.