9/11 Hero in Delaware Suffers While U.S. Senate Refuses to Vote

Why is a bill that could help ease the pain of First Responders tied up in partisan politics?

The great towers had just fallen after the attack on America. A police officer handed Vito Valenti a bottle of water so he could rinse the dust and debris from his head. Vito was one of thousands evacuated from nearby buildings. Most of us watched the horror of September 11, 2001 on television; Vito stood and watched the second plane, the flames and the falling bodies from across the street. And with the rumble of collapse he ran with the crowds from the monstrous dust cloud of toxins and pulverized concrete and glass that swept like a tsunami through the streets of Lower Manhattan.

Most kept running to try and get home, or to try and get away from home, to try and get anywhere that wasn’t the hell of Ground Zero. Vito went back.

After pouring the bottled water over his head, Vito heard a firefighter asking for volunteers over a bullhorn. Vito simply said, “I’ll help.” He spent the next two days on the pile searching for survivors, helping wounded emergency workers and taking part in bucket brigades.

He was just an everyday Vito, a grievance claims representative with a New York City Municipal Workers Union, thrown into an unthinkable situation, who chose to do the right thing. He and his family have been suffering from his decision ever since. But how could he have ever imagined on that day his country would turn its back on those like him who didn’t run away?

Now he sits in his home in Magnolia, Delaware hoping for someone to save his life.

Almost from the time he inhaled 9/11, Vito has not been able to breathe right. His lungs have been ravaged by pulmonary fibrosis. Oxygen tanks and 35 medications a day keep him alive and he hasn’t slept in a bed in seven years; he sleeps propped up in a recliner. He needs to have a double-lung transplant or he will die.

A couple of weeks ago Vito called his good friend Joe Picurro, and former ironworker from Toms River, New Jersey, who spent weeks on the pile. Vito called him in hospice. “I told him it was going to be okay. I told him not to give up.” Joe died two days later. The official cause of death was cancer, but they could have just written 9/11 on the form. Joe Picurro was 42 years old. Among First Responders, the average age at death is now 48. Vito Valenti is 47.

Like many First Responders, Vito has spent most of the past decade trying to prove that his illness is related to his heroism. He has had to prove it to the City of New York, the state and the insurance companies. After trying to save lives in wreckage of the World Trade Towers, Vito has been fighting to save his own life ever since. He has almost lost the fight several times waiting for an operation or waiting for the insurance company to okay the expenditure on his portable oxygen tanks.

[SIGNUP]Now no one questions Vito or any of the First Responders anymore. The proof is in the morbid numbers. The official death toll of the terrorist attacks in Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and a field in Western Pennsylvania is accepted to be 2,973. But it is much higher than that. In the years that followed, the toxins and debris of 9/11 have claimed almost 1,000 First Responders. There will be a funeral this week on Long Island for New York Police Officer David Mahmoud who was taken by a cancer that formed in his nasal passages after he spent weeks in the dust of 9/11. David was 42. He is the 985th First Responder to die since the attacks. Many, like Vito, are dying still.

This cost of bravery is made sinister by the federal government’s lack of caring. There is a bill in Congress that would help the nation’s 30,000 9/11 First Responders, but it has been lost in the dust and debris of partisan politics with few heroes willing to save it.

The 9/11 First Responders Health and Compensation Bill has one last breath. It was passed by the House of Representatives before the midterm elections and is waiting for a Senate vote. President Obama has already said that he will sign the bill as soon as it gets to his desk. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won’t even put the bill on the calendar until he is assured he has the 60 votes to avoid a grandstanding filibuster by the Republicans over government spending. Right now the bill does not have one Republican vote in the Senate.

So the same Senate that so quickly bailed out banks and automakers for bad behavior are punishing bravery. And Republican senators, who so easily send money to Iraq and Afghanistan for a war on terror, can’t find the money to save its first heroes. It is shameful.

There is not much time to act. With a new Congress and a new wave of political acrimony about to be sworn in to office in January, the bill will most certainly die if it is not passed before then. And more First Responders will surely die.

Vito Valenti is hopeful but realistic. Like many First Responders, he has exhausted his family’s savings just to stay alive. If he is to be number 986, he wants to make certain that his family doesn’t have to suffer any longer because he chose to stay when others ran away. The fund would compensate Vito for the salary he lost over the last 10 years and take care of his medical bills. He could leave something to wife Kristina and his two sons, 21-year-old Joseph and 9-year-old Brandon. They know their father is a hero, even if the government hasn’t acknowledged in yet.

But that could change with one vote. If you are moved to want to do something about this injustice, call Senator Harry Reid at 202-224-3542 and tell him to put the 9/11 First Responders Bill up for a vote. And then call Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at 202-224-2451 and tell him that this is not a Republican or Democratic issue, but an American issue. Tell them both about Vito Valenti.

“How many more of us have to die before they pay attention to us?” Vito asks that question to Congress as he once again finds himself fighting for life’s most precious commodity, the one we all take for granted — breath. The dust cloud of 9/11 has followed him to Delaware. “I remember that day and how hard it was to catch my breath. The air was thick and smelled of death. I feel like I haven’t breathed right since then.”

The 10-year anniversary of 9/11 is less than a year away. Vito hopes to hold on until then so he can travel to New York so he can commemorate the day that changed his life and the decision he says he would make again today. Members of Congress are also certain to show up with little American flags on their lapels to take part in the ceremony. Those who vote against the 9/11 First Responders Bill shouldn’t show up, for it will be a day to mourn innocents lost and the heroes who tried to save them.

Vito Valenti still holds on now to the one thing that has kept him alive for nine years — hope. He believes that senators will do the right thing, that they can make the same decision he did, to put others above themselves.

“I am begging the United States Senate to please try and save my life.” The words are chilling. Heroes should never have to beg.

LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post every Monday and Thursday. See his previous columns here. To watch his video commentaries, go to wpix.com.