Whether it's on a Federal level, such as FEMA imposing additional suffering on legitimate victims of Hurricane Katrina, or the city of Los Angeles attempting to extort a measly $1000 ambulance bill from the family of a woman who was electrocuted trying to rescue a fellow motorist in a storm that downed power lines, or the owners of a local towing company in Florida who sent a $300 bill to a woman who was set on fire by her ex, for the removal of both their vehicles, there doesn't seem to be a limit to the lengths some of us will go to if it means avoiding a potential financial loss, no matter how small the amount, or how great the cost to our souls.
That includes denying the now hundreds of chronically ill volunteers who went down to Ground Zero the day after the attacks, not only compensation for their illness, but refusing to simply acknowledge some of them were even there. Because acknowledging it means someone has to pay. And, as if the illnesses and loss of quality of life - and, in some cases, life itself - weren't bad enough, the insurance companies and funds set up to "help" the victims of 9/11, seem, in most situations, to be doing exactly the opposite.
The very next morning, after the events that changed the world forever, and left the lower portion of the greatest city in the world in a twisted, crippled pile of metal and concrete we're still clearing to this day, my friend, Jaime Hazan, a former EMT for six years in New City, N.Y., was down at Ground Zero doing what came naturally to him. Helping to clear the wreckage, and, possibly, maybe even rescue any potential survivors.
He had no idea there would be none. He had no idea the dust and debris he was breathing, even through a mask, and only for a day, would, five years later, lead him to doctor after doctor trying to figure out why, this once healthy, vibrant guy who ran his own tech company, suddenly found it so difficult to breathe he could barely get out of bed. He also had no idea that the words used to describe him in the days and months following the attacks - words like "Hero," and "New York's Bravest," would eventually be replaced with terms like "fraud," and "phony" by lawyers whose job it was to make sure the insurance companies didn't have to pay a dime.
See, while many of the police, fire, and ambulance workers had finally begun to receive a portion of their long-overdue compensation for illnesses they incurred while on the job, guys like Jaime, who were not officially affiliated with any city rescue organization, were asked to prove that they were there. These volunteers ended up in 'No-Man's-Land,' and, even though Article 8A of the New York State Workman's Comp. Act is supposed to make it easier for volunteers to collect the same benefits, try proving you were somewhere five, or even ten years, after the fact. Now, try proving it to an insurance company.
We all recognize and acknowledge that the big insurance companies have to protect themselves from fraud; from those soulless impostors who are single-handedly responsible for our insurance and credit card rates skyrocketing higher each and every year, and who, even (or especially) in the case of disasters which result in the loss of thousands of lives, will try and weasel a few bucks out of the cookie jar for themselves, even if it means the real victims suffer for it. We all readily acknowledge that -mostly because we're the ones footing the bill for it. But, at some point, they, too, must acknowledge that not everyone is a fraud. Not everyone wants to risk jail time and bilk innocent victims out of their due compensation, just to satisfy some sadistic sociopathic need in themselves. And, when the testimony and physical evidence is overwhelming to the point of medical records, affidavits, a leading doctor's official diagnosis, post traumatic stress disorder, a myriad of respiratory issues, esophageal surgery, and massive weight loss, you'd think that would be good enough for them. Well, think again.
Aside from the fact that he was in perfect health before taking part in what was the equivalent of walking around in the aftermath of an atomic bomb, and aside from the fact that, just a few years later, his lungs were now virtually useless, and aside from the fact that the heartburn he was suffering from on a daily basis was so severe, even triple doses of Zantac were an exercise in futility, according to the insurance company, he still needed to come up with "proof."
After leaving Ground Zero, and never thinking in his wildest dreams that, years later, he'd ever be in a situation like this - one where his integrity would continue to be questioned beyond all reasonable limits, he tossed his boots into the garbage. The boots which contained the dust that could've proved he was there. But, as they say, the Lord works in mysterious ways, and the guy Jaime happened to be standing next to that day, - a day of pure chaos and utter disorganization - was capt. John McDonough, an EMT from Rockland County, N.Y., and a former co-worker of Jaime's from back in his EMT days.
They hadn't seen each other in years, and yet, here they were, two former friends meeting again on top of a forty-ft. high, smoldering pile of steel. Both, trying to make sense of it all. Both, heeding their inherent calls to "do something, anything." To help.
It was Capt. McDonough, who Jaime called upon when his word was questioned by the Fund's attorneys, to provide an affidavit to the court stating he was, in fact, there at Ground Zero - "In the Zone" as they call it, - and, thus, should be entitled to the same benefits as any other officially sanctioned rescue worker.
Still, according to Jaime, the other side wouldn't budge. They threw everything they could at him. From trying to argue his benefits should be denied because his EMT card had "expired," to the fact that he didn't actually "rescue" anyone, consequently, he was just there "hanging out."
As the insanity of his legal battle played out before his eyes, and, as this former millionaire web developer who, due to his inability to work for years, now faced financial ruin, another miracle occurred.
Turns out, capt. McDonough's boss was there that day, as well, photographing the site. As a last ditch effort, Jaime asked his friend's boss to scour the hundreds of photos for any possible trace of him on the pile. And he found one. Considering the fog, dust, and debris permeating the air, a needle in a haystack would be an understatement in this particular instance. But, again, the lawyers shot back.
Because the picture he submitted was a profile shot, and he wasn't fully facing the camera, ... and he was wearing a mask (a mask given to him by Capt. McDonough, which probably saved his life), there was still no way to prove it was him.
Believe it or not, in a final attempt to discern whether or not it was, in fact, Jaime in the photo, the judge personally examined the curve of his receding hair line and determined that Jaime was, indeed, "In the Zone."
After finding in his favor, the judge went as far as to admonish the insurance company and its attorneys for showing an unprecedented display of apathy toward a person who had made such a sacrifice for his fellow citizens, and, who was simply asking to be taken care of, on the smallest level, now that he could no longer take care of himself (incidentally, the judgment awarded was for 25k).
In spite of it all, the attorneys recently filed an appeal, and it will be at least another year before Mr. Hazan sees any type of compensation. It's also possible, he may have to go back to court if the appeals process finds for the defense. If that happens, he won't be able to rely on Capt. McDonough, as he unfortunately passed away after a series of mysterious illnesses.
As bizarre as Jaime's story is, it's not unusual for many of the volunteers who've been ignored, and worse, harassed, by the same system supposedly there to help them.
One thing that needs to be mentioned is that, throughout his six-year-long ordeal, Jaime, who, before taking ill, was the CEO of a very successful tech start-up, has tried to remain silent about what was/is happening to him. Not only because his attorneys constantly tell him, if he talks he could jeopardize any possible future payout from the Victim's Compensation Fund, but because he's a guy who was always used to doing things for himself and never asked for a handout, no matter the circumstances. He never viewed himself as a victim. Nor does he now. He simply decided that, in the event he should not be around by the time his case is ultimately decided, he wants to do the right thing for the others who may be experiencing the same level of ambivalence and bureaucracy he's had to endure. Considering the 9/11 Fund was set up in 2010 and still hasn't paid a cent, there's probably a lot of them. Still, in spite of all this, knowing Jaime, he'd probably do it all over again.
And, as we remember the events of that day over a decade ago, which, even twenty years from now, will still probably seem like yesterday, one can only imagine all those people caught, without masks, in the dust cloud that morning. I hope they saved their hankies as proof.
(It's worth noting the Centers of Excellence at Mt. Sinai Hospital in N.Y.C. provides free care to Jaime and other victims of 9/11 through the Zadroga Bill.)
Jaime Hazan (blue t-shirt) stands next to the late Capt. John McDonough (in white)