Comedian Jon Stewart has ripped into US politicians for failing to turn up to hear the testimony of 9/11 survivors, calling their behaviour “an embarrassment to the country”.
- Stewart said “sick and dying” first responders and their families came to Washington for the hearing, only to face deserted seats
- Politicians from both parties said they supported the bill and were monitoring the hearing
- More than 40,000 people have applied to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund
A congressional hearing had been set up to discuss a bill to ensure a victims’ compensation fund set up after the 9/11 attacks could pay benefits for the next 70 years.
Pointing to rows of empty seats in the House Judiciary Committee hearing room, Stewart said “sick and dying” first responders and their families came to Washington for the hearing, only to face a nearly deserted dais.
The sparse attendance by politicians was “an embarrassment to the country and a stain on this institution”, Stewart said, adding that the “disrespect” shown to first responders now suffering from respiratory ailments and other illnesses “is utterly unacceptable”.
Politicians from both parties said they supported the bill and were monitoring the hearing amid other congressional business.
Representative Mike Johnson predicted the bill would pass with overwhelming support and said politicians meant no disrespect as they moved in and out of the subcommittee hearing, a common occurrence on Capitol Hill.
Stewart was unconvinced.
Pointing to rows of uniformed firefighters and police officers behind him, he said the hearing “should be flipped”, so that first responders were on the dais, with members of Congress “down here” in witness chairs answering their questions.
First and foremost, Stewart said, families wanted to know: “Why this is so damn hard and takes so damn long?”
‘Running out of time’
The collapse of the World Trade Centre during the 9/11 attacks in 2001 sent a cloud of thick dust billowing over Lower Manhattan.
Fires burned for weeks. Thousands of construction workers, police officers, firefighters and others spent time working in the soot, often without proper respiratory protection.
Stewart has lent his support to firefighters, first responders and survivors of the September 11 terror attacks. (AP: J Scott Applewhite)
In the years since, many have seen their health decline, some with respiratory or digestive-system ailments that appeared almost immediately, others with illnesses that developed as they aged, including cancer.
More than 40,000 people have applied to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which covers illnesses potentially related to being at the World Trade Centre site, the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the attacks.
More than $US5 billion in benefits have been awarded out of the $US7.4 billion fund, with about 21,000 claims pending.
Stewart and other speakers lamented the fact that nearly 18 years after the attacks, first responders and their families still had no assurance the fund would not run out of money.
The Justice Department said in February the fund was being depleted and that benefit payments were being cut by up to 70 per cent.
“The plain fact is that we are expending the available funds more quickly than assumed, and there are many more claims than anticipated,” said Rupa Bhattacharyya, the fund’s special master. A total of 835 awards have been reduced as of May 31, she said.
Stewart called that shameful.
“Your indifference is costing these men and women their most valuable commodity: time,” he told politicians. “It’s one thing they’re running out of.”